Film adaptations of video games never arrive quietly. Gaming is a billion-dollar industry; fans are notably, even infamously, hardcore. And when it comes to transitioning particularly cartoonish gaming heroes from their fantastically illogical worlds to a conventional, human-filled, real-life Earth, filmmakers face an even more daunting task of suspending our disbelief.
And for protective fans of classic video gaming mascots like Pikachu, Mario, or Sonic the Hedgehog, it would be especially impossible to forgive any crew who turned a beloved character into an unrecognizable figure. It’s hard to trust Hollywood, the land of the Minions, to not reduce beloved, familiar faces into sentient, insufferably quippy Happy Meal toys.
When various studios announced live-action films based on all three of the above characters in the mid-2010s, fans grimaced. Sonic the Hedgehog, Paramount Pictures’ stab at the electric-blue Sega mainstay, is the second to make it to theaters. But as early marketing efforts were rolled out last year, concerns that Sonic would be manipulated by the Hollywood machine into a catchphrase-spouting terror mounted.
Perhaps fears of Sonic’s move to live-action feature films were needlessly alarmist, especially following Detective Pikachu. 2019’s live-action Pokémon adaptation had its own prerelease concerns, since Pokémon is a multimedia franchise full of hundreds of characters and lore much more beloved and expansive than Sonic’s. But that movie succeeded in honoring the world upon which it was based, even if the story itself was a little flat and kiddy. Know-nothings might have sometimes struggled to follow along. But for Pokémon lovers, it was a wonderful realization of the games’ world.
Pikachu is a character without a preexisting personality, however; Pokémon’s internal logic is what most compels its fans. Sonic’s video games, conversely, are light on story. It’s Sonic himself who has been their main attraction since the 1990s, when he was Sega’s high-speed challenger to Nintendo’s slow and stubby Super Mario.
Where Mario was a mustachioed man who could jump and jog and little else, Sonic was the Blue Blur, radiating the “rad” ethos of the ’90s. That sensibility was best typified by a disdain for authority (think Bart Simpson), an obsession with rock stardom, eyerolls, and sarcasm. But there’s a lot about the ’90s that does not hold up, including Sonic’s personality.
People who loved Sonic and his games in his heyday continue to defend him, to respect him, to wish the best for him. It’s still fun to watch him zip through loop-de-loop levels, dashing into robots and other creatures in his path without taking a breath. The classic games’ different bits of theme music remain unforgettable; the franchise has spawned years’ worth of memes and in-jokes, a true testament to longevity. Sonic’s supporting cast is similarly beloved in its own right, even as it has continued to expand at a sometimes infuriating rate. For a Sonic movie to be successful, it had to acknowledge the truly cool parts of classic Sonic, not just the “sick, dude” ones.
Movie Sonic started with a major disadvantage: a terrible design. But he bounced back beautifully.
Pleasing nostalgic video game fans is rarely easy. What provided Sonic the Hedgehog its biggest barrier was a design gaffe appalling to everyone, not just hedge-heads. The movie’s first marketing materials, released in December 2018 (a poster) and April 2019 (a trailer), revealed an ... interesting ... reimagining of Sonic, with muscley calves and a full set of human-like teeth. He had bare hands instead of his trademark gloves; his eyes were small and wide set, not the shiny, oversized eyes he’d always had in games.
The unveiling of the design did not go well, inspiring such vaunted “accolades” as “nightmare,” “ugly [and] toothy,” and “frightfully realistic.” So hated was Sonic’s original design that its director apologized and recalled it, announcing that the character would be entirely reworked for the final film. That’s a whole lot of CGI to redo on a main character, so the news elicited concerns about animators working overtime to make the movie’s fall release date. Sonic the Hedgehog was eventually pushed back three months, from November 2019 to February 2020, to accommodate the redesign work. But the debacle cast a pall over a production whose video game-fan audience was already skeptical.
I’d count myself strongly among those initial skeptics, whose affection for Sonic is both defensive and begrudging. Even when Sonic talks too much in his video games, or the games fall apart — as in the 2006 game Sonic the Hedgehog, in which he kisses a human woman on the lips — there’s a joyous charm to someone still so stuck in the ’90s. He’s a nostalgic object we’d oft-prefer to leave encased in amber.
In making the character work for a broader audience, the team behind Sonic the Hedgehog didn’t sacrifice the at-times embarrassing, at-times lovable parts of Sonic. In fact, it’s self-aware of how tiresome Sonic can be, while still reminding fans of why we remain attached to him.
Sonic the Hedgehog manages this by telling a unique origin story, reimagining Sonic for an unfamiliar audience while winking heavily to his history. The film paints the character (voiced by the always charming Ben Schwartz) as an excitable teen whose enthusiasm belies his loneliness. Blessed with the hypnotic power of super speed, he’s been hiding for most of his life, evading bad actors who would harness his speed to wreak havoc across the universe. He lives in the tiny town of Green Hills, Montana (the name is a reference to the video games), and he passes his time running around the area just quickly enough to go unseen by the folks who would freak out if they found him.
Those include Sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), a cop from Green Hills who wants to make a name for himself by joining the San Francisco Police Department. Tom’s life in Montana is mundane, he says; what is his purpose? Sonic poses that same question to himself, as he struggles to make peace with his solitude. So when Sonic and Tom cross paths, and Sonic reveals that he’s been watching Tom and his wife from afar and imagining a life with them, it’s … a little creepy. But mostly it’s the universe bringing together two guys who want fulfillment, so they can pair up to go out and find it.
Sonic is a buddy comedy in this way, focused heavily on the relationship between a grown man and his teenage, talking-hedgehog pseudo-son. It’s funny and sweet, if a little plodding and bogged down by bathroom humor (for the kids!). But delving into a side of the Sonic backstory that’s hardly been broached by the video games works well enough, as it’s hard for fans to get too annoyed with it, and it plops kids right into Sonic’s world without confusing them too much. There’s no Tom in the video games, but he’s a decent straight man to Sonic’s exuberant big kid, one who can help calm down what could have easily become a hyperactive movie.
Sonic the Hedgehog is a road trip movie and an action-comedy, too. Sonic and Tom end up on the run (heh) from Jim Carrey as the evil genius Dr. Robotnik, who’s trying to harness Sonic’s power for his own use, under the guise of helping the FBI protect the country from an unidentified speeding blue hedgehog. Tom’s involvement in helping Sonic flee is a contrivance designed to give Jim Carrey another human to play against, which is a little tiresome. But Carrey’s face is the human embodiment of Play-doh, which helps make an otherwise flat villain from the video games into a more entertaining, cartoon-y one, which feels fitting for this movie.
Sonic is a video game character first and foremost, and the movie never forgets that. Its equivalent of fight scenes, when Sonic’s speed is really put to the test, are easily its most delightful — we watch the world from his hyperdrive perspective, as everything halts around him and he begins to move enemies ever-so-slightly out of position. Sonic was as much a mileage-per-hour as he was a hedgehog, to the point where if anyone dared seem faster than him, it was a major offense. The loyalty to this aspect of the character, even if “being fast” does become a one-note gimmick after 90 minutes, is welcome.
There are Easter eggs, too, that suggest that this team really does care about Sonic as more than just a marketing tool for a younger generation. If the name “Sanic” means anything to you, you’ll be pleased. Familiar sound effects play on occasion. One of the games’ most famous musical motifs shows up at the end, and it took me by tearful surprise. And the tiny post-credits scene (yep, there’s one of those) introduced a friendly face who made me want a sequel, like, yesterday. Most importantly, the movie’s final rendering of Sonic, although not perfect, is so much more pleasant to look at than its first attempt. This is a Sonic we can learn to love.