It may come as a shock to adults who read genre news sites to hear that a movie like Sonic The Hedgehog – a movie so heavily influenced by the '90s video game IP it’s based on that it almost hurts – is squarely aimed at kids who just want to see cute, fuzzy cartoon characters get nuts and bash the heck out of some no-good robots. On that front, Sonic delivers – but there’s more.
Sonic, written by Patrick Casey and Josh Miller, and directed by VFX artist Jeff Fowler, is the kind of modern-day video game movie that would have defined the genre (and likely convinced audiences that video game movies weren’t categorically terrible) had it hit cinemas just a decade ago. Rather than trying to fully recreate the zippy hedgehog’s fantastical world where earthen speedways spiral through verdant jungles, Sonic instead pours the bulk of its energy into presenting the real world as a familiar starter level that Sonic (Ben Schwartz) has been secretly zooming around in, unbeknownst to the friendly citizens of Green Hills, Montana.
After a brisk opening flashback that explains the basic things one needs to know about Sonic – like that he’s impulsive and can hop across the galaxy by using techno-magical golden rings – the movie establishes that after traveling to Earth as a child, the one thing Sonic wants most in the world is to find a group of family and friends that loves him. But the strange power within Sonic that allows him to move so fast and generate massive waves of disruptive energy puts a target on his back and necessitates living in hiding.
Here, Sonic’s a good-natured, energetic teenager who hangs out in a comfy den in the woods when he isn’t getting into mischief by messing with Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), Green Hills’ ever-helpful sheriff who dreams of one day leaving the small town for San Francisco. Though Sonic could easily spend his time traversing the globe and experiencing everything Earth has to offer in multiple blinks of an eye, he’s content to live within the fantasy he’s constructed for himself in Green Hills. While no one in the town ever really sees Sonic save for the weird old cryptid-obsessed man who swears that there’s a blue devil lurking in the shadows, Sonic does, in fact, watch them all from a distance. There he can safely daydream about what life would be like if he was actually able to be part of society.
Sonic isn’t exactly heavy on big themes it wants you to mull over after you’ve left the cinema because, more often than not, it’s a hyper-caffeinated visual spectacle you’re meant to ogle at. But the movie does a surprisingly excellent job at conveying how Sonic’s loneliness weighs on him and how that feeling can make a person act out and put themselves in danger. In one moving scene, Sonic cleverly uses the hedgehog’s powers to illustrate this idea as he plays a game of baseball by himself on an empty diamond in the middle of the night. Sonic’s speed allows him to play every position simultaneously and again fall into the fantasy that he’s interacting with other people. But when he throws the baseball across the home plate and then immediately knocks it out of the park, he’s reminded that he’s still by himself, and the pain of it causes his powers to spike, setting off a rolling blackout across the country.
Dr. Robotnik preparing to kill Sonic.
Confident that you understand the place of hurt that Sonic’s coming from, the movie quickly rolls into its more high-octane action as his outburst draws the government’s attention to Green Hills and Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey) is sent into the field to investigate what went down. Carrey’s Robotnik is one of Sonic’s stealthy delights that makes more and more sense as the movie’s pace picks up. He’s every bit the megalomaniacal master of technology that fans of the games will remember, but he’s also an ever-so-slightly reimagined version of the character that Carrey makes his own through a blend of odd tics and a general air of unhinged narcissism. The fleet of gleaming drones Robotnik sends to descend on Green Hills in search of Sonic earn the mad scientist his 'Eggman' monicker and create the perfect, lifeless adversaries to make Sonic feel like an impressively on-brand translation of the Sonic Adventure Dreamcast games.
Once Robotnik has his sights set on Sonic, all of the movie’s other human characters aside from Tom and Robotnik begin to feel like NPCs who are really just scenery. Tom’s veterinarian wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter) disappears entirely to get a head start on their move to San Francisco where she stays with her sister Rachel, who thinks Tom is a loser. But once Sonic reveals himself to Tom and begs for his help to escape Robotnik and recover his lost bag of golden rings, the movie’s focus rightfully narrows as the story begins racing towards its inevitable boss battle.
Because Sonic’s relatively late to the live-action super speed game, the movie’s depiction of Sonic’s powers occasionally feels a bit derivative of things like Fox’s take on Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past, Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix. But to the animation team’s credit, the movie’s take on Sonic’s powerset is a novel one for the character because it’s both distinct from the video games and it works perfectly to sell the idea of Sonic running around alongside flesh and blood humans.
In moments when you’re watching Sonic fling himself through deadly explosions in bullet time, you can’t help but think about the production hours that went into making the scenes so visually stunning. This, of course, brings to mind the first glimpses of Sonic the public received months ago that prompted a swift backlash and promises from Paramount that the character model would be completely revamped. As you watch Sonic, it’s difficult to imagine a version of the film that could have starred the original character model because of how undeniably well the one in the movie works. Save for the occasional scene where an actor’s sightline is a little off, the movie’s Sonic feels as natural as a cartoonish, anthropomorphic talking hedgehog can. All of this is to say that the movie in cinemas gets everything about Sonic’s aesthetic so right that the first trailer and its uncanny valley Sonic really do seem as if they could have been a publicity stunt designed to alarm people and generate buzz.
Other small details throughout the movie speak to the care that went into making it something that older fans nostalgic for the franchise would be able to appreciate as well. In addition to his home planet and Earth, Sonic repeatedly mentions another world entirely covered in mushrooms, an overt nod to Sega’s historic rivalry with Nintendo. When Sonic gets violently smacked down, all of his coins go scattering across the ground, and he’s got to collect them all in if he wants to escape Robotnik’s clutches. Sonic frames the golden rings as portal makers Doctor Strange would envy, and Fowler uses the concept to execute some of the movie’s more visually spectacular action sequences. Even though Sonic’s a relatively short movie whose story only really focuses on a handful of locations, it still manages to feel big and expansive.
The film’s final act makes it clear that Paramount has visions of Sonic being the first project that launches a franchise set in this universe because the majority of Sonic’s lore that hardcore fans have dedicated to memory is nowhere to be found in this story. Honestly, that’s a good thing because it can’t be overemphasised just how much this is a kids movie that’s thoughtful enough to give older audiences some things to earnestly chuckle at. This Sonic story’s stripped down just enough to sell you on the idea of a talking alien hedgehog before convincing you that it might be worth seeing at least one more movie to find out what’s going to happen next.
All images: Paramount