Wow, talk about a bullet dodged. Jeff Fowler’s live-action Sonic the Hedgehog faced scathing internet ridicule over the title hero’s original animated personification (THEM CHOMPERS), but Paramount’s redesigned product shows no scramble-fixer insufficiencies. Even though Sonic the Hedgehog is geared towards younger audiences, SEGA’s speedster hedgehog collects full-theater laughs like golden rings throughout his first cinematic adventure. It’s an enjoyable movie-night combination of lightning quips, genuine friendship and observational humor paced with Sonic’s “gotta go fast” attitude. Score one for video game fans!
In this 2020 origin, Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) finds sanctuary on Earth after being driven from his homeland by attackers. His prized possession, a sack of teleportation “rings,” allows safe passage whenever his presence and powers are outed. Like clockwork, Sonic loses control and an electromagnetic burst brings Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) to the sleepy Montana town of Green Hills. Sonic attempts to skedaddle, but local officer Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) interrupts in the worst way. After collecting himself once initial shock fades, Tom agrees to play guide until Sonic can recover what’s needed for his next planetary jump – if Dr. Robotnik doesn’t capture them first.
It’s a sincere tale about finding family and compassion, as “Blue Devil” Sonic is an outsider living vicariously through the ho-hum lives of “Donut Lord” (nickname for policeman Tom) and “Pretzel Lady” (yoga enthusiast Maddie, played by the “boneless” Tika Sumpter). Our earliest introductions into Sonic’s mind are that of an outcast orphan who, to the benefit of plotting, struggles with isolation by filling the silence with his voice and perspective. It’s a sweetened story written by Patrick Casey and Josh Miller that never overburdens Sonic’s “bucket list” motivation of making a single friend, but hits all integral notes needed to bond Tom and his alien tagalong. Simplicity isn’t bad when effectively honed. Sonic’s superhero abilities don’t take form until his emotional distress is addressed, which ensures a more fulfilling children’s build-up.
Enter Jim Carrey as Dr. Robotnik, who injects every drop of his 90s physical comedy routine into a tech-obsessed villain with biting egomania issues. This is the Carrey you remember from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, from Batman Forever, where wild gestures or theatrical line reads define so much of the mustachioed “Eggman’s” presence. Dr. Robotnik values his aerial drone army over human companionship (intellect over instinct), and Carrey loses himself to the digital blips and beeps that project nothing but maniacal madness. Look no further than a laboratory sequence where Carrey dances to his “Anarchy Tunes” playlist while simultaneously analyzing Sonic’s biological attributes – pure, potent, ten-thousand-percent-missed signature Carrey abandon. An entertainer who sees no boundaries.
Schwartz’s motormouth and Carry’s Robotnik might not be one-to-one recreations of iconic characters – video game or cartoon form – but fans will still leave fully serviced. Most nods are overt, e.g. Sonic’s “hometown” of Green Hills (Green Hill Zone), while other homages are baked in like Junkie XL’s melodic updates to Sonic’s more famous level scores. Fowler’s team understands Sonic’s advantages, meaning his whirring charger ball mode is indestructible but soft punches are weak (never my Super Smash Bros. pick). Character work isn’t sacrificed for nostalgia wins, proven by the “why are my eyes watery” moment when Sonic receives his patented red sneakers. Sonic the Hedgehog values its franchise potential, but starts small by first laying the proper cinematic groundwork. Never distracted by sequels to come.
Would this be a Sonic the Hedgehog movie review without touching on animation? Which, frankly, isn’t the disaster so many predicted. It’s true that a few sequences feel unfinished as Tom carries an unconscious Sonic, the digitized hedgehog not looking all that natural in James Marsden’s arms. Otherwise, “cartoonier” Sonic without those nightmare teeth doesn’t flash any signs of rushed pixelation or CGI malfunctions. It may be an unprecedented move, and I’m not loving a world where studios tread back on creative choices based on fan backlash, but in the end, we likely gained a better product. At least from what we saw in those disastrous trailer shots.
James Marsden’s odd career trajectory that features multiple creature/human buddy flicks (see: Hop) still screams for bigger leading roles, but his do-gooder charisma plays too favorably against Sonic’s juvenile partnership to ignore precise casting. The comedy within scripting sticks to gags that can be appreciated by all ages, so don’t expect anything particularly sophisticated (fart humor) or high-end. More like sequences where Sonic shellshocks a turtle by letting him “burn rubber” for once, or pop culture references to Fast & Furious movies, or the film’s bountiful Olive Garden references (seriously, that product placement probably paid for Sonic 2.0). Choice moments had me bust out laughing, other jests sometimes fell dead-flat in the lowest hanging fruit way, yet camaraderie between unlikely new partners always makes for endearing chemistry. That and Adam Pally’s “dumb cop” routine, or Sonic’s chili cheese dog consumption during one of his “Quicksilver slow-mo” homages.
While I’m breathlessly excited for a sequel based on not one, but two post-credits scenes that brought a big dumb smile to this gamer’s face, Sonic the Hedgehog doesn’t waste SEGA’s biggest cinematic opportunity. It’s in the same camp as Detective Pikachu in terms of understanding how to adapt an existing legacy property with unique and fresh signatures, but still delivers what the people (Sonic faithful) want (except a Big the Cat cameo). Jeff Fowler’s film is exciting (Sonic vs. Robotnik gadgetry action), it’s funny (trust in Ben Schwartz), and successfully brings Sonic to a whole new generation of audiences who couldn’t tell a SEGA Genesis console from a paperweight. As both a movie critic and Sonic supporter, I assure you my post-screening smile required no additional CGI touchups.
Sonic the Hedgehog blazes by lesser video game adaptations that have thus defined the subgenre's lackluster reputation by succeeding as both a sincere children's film and blue hedgehog origin that fans will applaud.