Review: Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Director: Jeff Fowler

Writers: Patrick Casey, Josh Miller, Yuji Naka (characters), Naoto Ohshima (characters), Hirokazu Yasuhara (characters)

Composer: Tom Holkenborg

Starring: James Marsden, Ben Schwartz, Tika Sumpter, Jim Carrey

Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy

Growing up in the 90s was weird.  Everything was advancing too fast to even be identified.  Before we were familiar with one piece of tech, in came the next big thing:  CDs, DVDs, the internet, emails, full CGI movies.  All this and more found their first incarnations in that tumultuous decade.  Perhaps the punkish speedster, Sonic the Hedgehog, was the unblemished embodiment of that time that we didn’t know we needed.  His Nintendo competitor, Mario, may be timeless, but the Blue Blur is firmly 90s in all that he is.

We live in a time in which a video game to film adaptation is no longer the worst idea that one could conceive.  That title is currently being contested between studying Tagalog as an elective in American law school, resurrecting Shaquille O’Neal’s acting career, and whatever events led to the first trailer released for this movie.  Seriously, what were they thinking with that?  They do know that they’ve done more damage to the reputation of “Gangsta’s Paradise” than that Weird Al parody, right?  Now we’re gonna have to put up with YouTube Crack videos splicing video game mascots with that music like it’s still funny after 500,000 views.  It’s basically Ugandan Knuckles all over again!

And why didn’t anyone think to put Ugandan Knuckles in this movie?!  Am I the only one who realizes the weight of the meta-commentary that this inclusion would have-…

You know what, let’s just start the review…

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Cartoonish fantasy violence includes drones that shoot lasers, bullets, and some type of explosive device. Punches are thrown both as a means of escape for main characters (they brag about it) and as a means of aggression for rough bikers. Two people fall off a building but are saved. A tranquilizer gun is used.

Language/Crude Humor: Language is more rude than profane — words include “butt,” “fart,” “hell,” and “freak.” A couple of times a profane expression is started, but the strongest word gets cut off/out; i.e. “son of a …” and “what the … “

Sexual Content: None

Drug/Alcohol Use: Sonic and Tom go into a bar where Tom drinks what appears to be beer; he drives soon after (without incident).

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Themes: Themes of loneliness and separation anxiety.  Blatant product placement.

Positive Content: Messages about the value of friendship: It’s how we survive. Treat others like you’d like to be treated.

Deputy Tom Wachowski is the reliable rock of Green Hills, but he feels he could be of greater value in a big city—he wants to help people facing life-or-death situations. His wife, Maddie, is the town veterinarian and has a big, kind, understanding heart. Their relationship is depicted as aspirational, supportive, and loving and offers positive representation. Dr. Robotnik is a cartoonishly evil villain.

Review

“…NOW we can get started.”

I had to say that after seeing that the cataclysmic disaster that was the initial trailer for Sonic The Hedgehog, it was properly addressed by the powers that be and corrected posthaste.  It’s a rare occurrence that the big wigs behind a major film production actually listen to the viewership when the latter says “Stop!  You’re going the wrong way!”  There are just as many benefits as there are detriments to the growing ubiquity and omnipresence of online social media, and there is certainly an argument to be made about the dangers in setting this precedent of creative authorities caving into the demands of the masses.  In this particular case, I’d argue that the outcome was certainly for the better.

I consider myself to be one who champions substance over style in cinema.  How the film looks is far from a non-issue, but it cannot be pursued in lieu of more fundamental features such as plot, character development, and resonance. With that said, I wasn’t expecting anything approaching true greatness in something like a film adaptation of Sonic the Hedgehog, the punkish speedster mascot of Japanese video game developer and publisher, SEGA.

Few gaming fans who have been waiting for a solid and respectable video game-to-cinema release have come to terms with the fact that great movies come from great scripts.  Great scripts come from great stories, and I’m sorry to have to say this, but most video games don’t have those.  Sadly, the ones that do are of a sort that don’t translate too well to film in most cases.  Software’s Dark Souls has, in my assessment, one of the best written and best executed stories in the whole of the medium, but because it is framed in a way that demands interactive play, I don’t see how a film (or even a Netflix series for that matter) could do it justice.  I’m perfectly happy to be proven wrong on this (hint-hint, wink-wink, nudge-nudge).

Sonic is one such game title that never tries to boast anything about itself with regard to its story.  That’s not necessarily to say that an acceptable film project cannot be drawn out of it.  The fundamental plot is simple and easily recognizable enough to engage any viewer, no matter how young or jaded.  One might posit that what’s on offer at base in the ongoing fight between the Blue Blur and his archnemesis, Dr. Robotnik (Dr. Eggman in Japan) is no more sophisticated than a repetitive series of chases between a hyper-confident speedy rapscallion foiling the plots of a tech-savvy gadgeteer who just can’t catch him despite all wit and weapons at the ready.  Be that as it may, I’m sure we’ve all done just fine enjoying a Wile E. Coyote/Roadrunner cartoon in spite of—or perhaps because of—that.

It’s not a stretch to say that trying to render out a Chuck Jones animated short into something resembling a sensible feature-length production is a bit of a stretch.  Couple that inherent difficulty with the disastrously bad first impression made with the infamous first trailer that dropped earlier last year, and it’s honestly a miracle that Jeff Fowler’s feature debut is even watchable.  I am pleased to inform you, dear reader, that Sonic the Hedgehog is not only bearable, but much more fun than I was ever expecting it to be.

With the lingering aura of the live-action Smurfs and Alvin & The Chipmunks movies still scalding my memory despite almost never giving any full due diligence to any of those releases, I was stunned to leave this movie not only feeling unviolated, but thoroughly satisfied.  Sonic doesn’t aim to win awards or to go down in history as one of the greats of the medium.  Its only ambition is be fun and be loved for it.  It accomplishes this in just about every dimension, and in many ways, I’d say it’s a step up in quality over last year’s unexpectedly charming video game adaptation, Pokémon Detective Pikachu.  I have to keep reminding myself that we are now in the post-Castlevania era, so catastrophically bad video game movies and shows are no longer as acceptable as they once were.

How does Fowler manage this with a screenplay penned by Pat Casey and Josh Miller?  We’re given a very rudimentary origin story of the blue-furred speed demon (voiced by Ben Schwartz) growing up under the custody of Longclaw the Owl (Donna Jay Fulks playing a character never before seen in any Sonic game I played growing up) on his home planet.  Sonic possesses a keen power that is sought after by many others on the planet, and that puts him in the crosshairs of a tribe of echidnas that make an attempt at capturing him.  Things get too dire for Sonic to be safe on his home planet anymore, so Longclaw hands him a bag of the iconic golden rings that here act as portals to other planets.

As it’s expected to turn out, Sonic finds himself as an extraterrestrial refugee on Earth, and grows up hiding in the woods near the small gas station town of Green Hills, Montana (an explicit nod to “Green Hill Zone”, the first level in the original Sonic the Hedgehog title) while maintaining some semblance of connection with the human population through acts of spying and eavesdropping.  For unclear reasons, he develops a particular affinity for a local sheriff named Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) and his wife, the veterinarian Maddie (Tika Sumpter), and gives most of his time to play acting as though he’s an active participant in their sweet and humble home life.

Even when wrestling with heavy topics like crippling depression and loneliness, Sonic never loses its pace or direction.  It trips up every now and again along the run, but there’s hardly a moment that feels out of place.  Easily the one thing that does ring as bereft of belonging is the blatant product placement.  Someone’s gotta fund this thing, and if that means having the tagline for Olive Garden unironically written into the script, so be it.  I also have to constantly remind myself that we live in a post-Lego Movie period, which means that feature-length brand commercials can also be regarded as a legitimate form of high art now.  It’s definitely a more graceful example of advertisement than the Krispy Kreme invasion into the Power Rangers flick from a few years ago.

Another somewhat weighty topic tackled here is one of loyalty.  After Sonic inadvertently causes a massive blackout in a fit of grief, he finds the military hot on his trail and himself in the care of Tom.  This happens right as Tom is applying to move from waiting at speed traps and escorting ducks across the road in Green Hills to the hustle and bustle of the San Francisco Police Department (there’s a lot I could say about how that isn’t going to be nearly as glamorous a position as he might think, but that’s for a another site).  Sonic’s separation anxiety provides a useful foil to Tom’s motivations, though I do wish that a bit more had been done to give Tom’s position some weight of credence.  Simply leaving Tom seeming like a selfish jerk for wanting something more in life struck me as misplaced.

Aside from being a healthy serving of nostalgia for people who were clinically shut-ins back in the 90s like me, Sonic carries itself as a humble-but-sincere passion project.  None of the performances ever feel “phoned-in”, and the writing has a sharp crackling candor to it that’s far more refined and sophisticated than I was prepared for.  I was happily reminded of the animated TV Program Sonic Boom, which also claims a style of comedic writing more mature than one would expect.

Of course, this is all tangential varnishing to the main course.  Jim Carrey is just as much an icon of the 90s as Sonic is, if not more so, and he shows up honorably resurrecting his early 90s persona as the mustachioed mechanical mastermind, Dr. Robotnick.  If you need some point of reference, dear reader, think somewhere between Ace Ventura and The Mask.  At the very least, it’s like a slightly restrained version of the Riddler from Batman Forever.  Carrey steals every scene he’s in and delivers exactly what everyone familiar with his body of work expects.  Whether he’s frantically mashing away at buttons on a device that calls up memories of the Nintendo Power Glove, or jamming out to music in his control center, this is 90s Carrey in full swing.

For my aforementioned fellow shut-ins, you’ll be glad to know that the runtime is also festooned with lovely nods and Easter eggs to the source material.  From musical cues to sound effects, one could feel like firing up the old Genesis that you may or may not still have on hand just to revisit what could seem at this point to have been a simpler time for gamers.  The writers also didn’t let an opportunity to take underhanded potshots at some old rivalries to pass by unused.  One of the planets that the ring portals open to is literally titled the “Mushroom Planet”.  Sonic voices utter disdain for mushrooms, and I couldn’t help but be the only one in the theater who laughed at what seemed like a clandestine jab at a popular competitor to SEGA back in the day. 

If you’re coming into Sonic the Hedgehog expecting anything other than what’s on the packaging, then you’re going to waste your time.  If you just want a charming and surprisingly well-baked offering of simply crafted comedic distraction, Sonic delivers that and then some.  The energy and flow of this film is just as quick-paced and energetic as I recall the games being back when they were consistently good.  By the time the mid-credits scene rolled with a strong and exciting promise of future installments, I was hungry for more.  I’m ashamed to say I was also a bit hungry for Olive Garden.  Shoot, I’m hungry for that now.  I don’t know whether to be mad or impressed by that.  Maybe both.  Dang it…

Positives

+ Strong performances all around + Jim Carrey + Surprisingly chic writing + IT’S FUN

Negatives

- One-dimensional - Broken plot - Awkward product placement

The Bottom Line

Is it good? No. Is it fun? Yes, indeed. More, please.

 

8.4

Tyrone Barnes

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