Gotta Go Fast
The opening prologue details Sonic’s [Schwartz] younger years and how he was given a pouch containing rings that could transport him to any destination and forced to leave his homeworld after an attempted kidnapping. More exposition highlights that the blue anthropomorphic hedgehog has been hiding in a small American town, observing from a distance but keeping out of sight for fear of being captured to harness is unique power: super-speed. One evening, the young creature feels particularly isolated and alone so runs in a circle repeatedly to vent. Doing so creates a powerful discharge of energy that attracts the attention of the US military who send one of their foremost experts, the highly eccentric technophile Dr Robotnik [Carrey], to ascertain the cause. Fearing for his life, Sonic accidentally encounters the local Sheriff, Tom Wachowski [Marsden], who tranquilises the hedgehog, causing him to drop a teleportation ring linked to the Transamerica Pyramid tower. Feeling responsible, Tom begrudgingly agrees to help him get to San Francisco and recover his rings, allowing him to escape.
At the time of release, Sonic is primarily known for one thing (other than the mountain of video games and merchandise), the widely rejected design for the film which was then scrapped and the release date moved to allow time to rework the visual effects. But as this doesn’t have a direct bearing on what we have ended up with, I’ll largely ignore that. What we have got, after the protracted wait, is a story with a surprisingly fun atmosphere and energy and several actual laughs. The cinematography is pleasing, the Easter eggs for the fans are decent without feeling intrusive and the score is suitably epic – which is hardly surprising considering it was composed by Tom Holkenborg. To say this release was a surprise is an understatement.
Almost all of the film is carried by two very strong performances. In the role of the antagonist we have Jim Carrey giving a very nostalgic and familiar performance. One could argue that he did something similar in Dumb And Dumber To but due to the puerile humour, it felt more desperate and depressing to watch. The key difference here is that Carrey seems to be genuinely having fun with the performance and really hamming up the villain for the primary audience (more on that later). Admittedly, this is nowhere near Count Olaf level of compelling villain but thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless. What I found truly interesting is that this potentially flat role had some depth to it that added to the character. Throughout the movie we glean information about his past and the journey he has taken to become this misanthropic, vindictive individual, while still spouting moustache-twirling villainous lines such as, “Confidence, a fool’s substitute for intelligence.” In truth, there is a very fine line between an opponent who is too sympathetic, to the point they become a relatable figure, and someone who is so cartoonishly antagonistic that they come off as unbelievable and silly. Utilising Robotnik’s disdain for others, his earnest love of machinery and arrogance confirmed by circumstance, makes for an interesting adversary.
The other, arguably more important, member of the cast is the eponymous hedgehog himself. Whenever something is adapted from an early 90s console game, it is often necessary to inject a lot of lore and presence, on account of the simplicity of a side-scrolling platformer. As such, this version of Sonic comes off as a nice hybrid of contemporary sensibilities and the cocksure personality beats from the cartoon and comics. There’s also a plentiful injection of heart, exploring themes of belonging which a younger audience can easily relate to. What’s more, Sonic is aged to that of the target demographic which adds to the comedic impact and dictates how Marsden has portrayed Tom; specifically that of a nice but responsible father-figure with a heart of gold, even when the two butt heads or seem at odds. This also presents plenty of opportunity for great comic delivery; an example being Tom saying if Sonic were to use a ring to escape to the mushroom planet he “wouldn’t be the only fungi” which is immediately countered with “No, don’t ever do that again.” It may not sound like much but the back-and-forth is very reminiscent of a child reacting quintessential “Dad jokes.” This is a double-edged sword, however, as mature audiences who grew up with the character may find him a little irksome but he’s a blue hedgehog who runs fast, spins into a charged ball and jumps on bad guys to defeat them – on paper, it’s the very definition of what you would want from Sonic.
But despite the praises I’ve been singing, this movie is a pretty average release. The fact it wasn’t a total trainwreck is an accomplishment of late (as was the case with Detective Pikachu) but over time people will wonder what the fuss was about. Owing to the direction they took both the character and the story, the majority of this film comes off as excessively simplistic and innocent but also largely unadventurous. So often events are dismissed, overlooked or resolved with the assumption that kids won’t care. Stuff like the power going out all over town but the phones still working, Sonic is tranquilised and can’t run but when he recovers almost immediately, he takes literal directions (i.e. run that way until you hit the sea) and sometimes people are terrified of his strange alien form, other times he’s seen as just a regular kid. It shouldn’t matter but the other elements don’t compensate enough to account for these glaring issues.
In summary, Sonic The Hedgehog is an above average kids film and with that in mind, it is perfectly acceptable. It could have easily been more layered and complex but I think it was pitching to a significantly younger audience than initially expected. Keeping the action on Earth also limits the possibilities but it’s almost a given that this will spark a sequel, so hopefully these points can be addressed then. Either way, having a handful of impressive video game adaptations is quite the triumph and could be the start of a new, previously presumed impossible, bubble like the rise of superhero features. Who knows?
14 February 2020
The Scene To Look Out For:
There are plenty of extremely funny moments throughout this film that brought a smile to my face without being unnecessarily crass or dumbed-down. Having said that, the most brow-furrowing moment is probably the opening sequence. We are introduced to a lot of fantasy elements very quickly and they are just as quickly dismissed. Sonic lives on an island with an owl named Longclaw before a group of echidnas try to abduct him – that sentence alone needs a lot of unpacking but the movie doesn’t seem to have time to and it largely gets overlooked, creating a bit of whiplash right from the get-go.
Marsden is very basic in his execution but serviceable. Most of his motivation is wrestling with the idea of moving to San Francisco to help people there or to stay in his home town. If I was being cynical, I would say this is one of those developments that kicked off in the early 2000s: the idea that metropolises are dangerous places devoid of personality whereas the real heart of America is in the small towns, which have the same, if not more to offer. Regardless, it only factors in a handful of times and frankly primarily exists to remove Tom’s wife Maddie (played by Tika Sumpter) from the equation. Speaking of Maddie, she is completely side-lined to allow the boys road trip to exist but when Sumpter and Marsden are together, the chemistry is solid and we get a glimpse of something that could have been more entertaining. Still, the fact Maddie is played by a person of colour is a step forward, albeit a very small one.
“I’ve not been spying on you, we’ve been hanging out but from a distance and no one knew I was there”
In A Few Words:
“A painfully safe, considered release but one that achieves what it sets out to and will delight its target audience: kids”