When Paramount released the first “Sonic the Hedgehog” trailer in April of last year, it was the culmination of a six-year process trying to get a movie about the all-but-defunct video game character off the ground. But what should have been a moment of triumph, or at least a blip on the YouTube radar, turned into a disaster. Social media users seemed horrified by the character’s creepy “real CGI” design. As one, the chattering masses rose up, pointed, and laughed.
But despite this drama stoked mostly by those one might call “very online,” Paramount and the film’s producers listened. A few weeks later, the movie was pushed back from its original November 2019 release date to Valentine’s Day 2020, enough time for the main character to be totally redesigned, nose to tail, and replaced in every frame of the movie.
It was an unprecedented decision. Fans complain on social media endlessly. Hashtags are created and petitions are posted, but no one actually goes out and remakes “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” No one releases the rumored Snyder Cut of “Justice League.” The decision to remake Sonic is thus both surprising and revealing. It turns out this desperate desire on the part of filmmakers to make everyone happy was par for the course for “Sonic the Hedgehog.”
Like the last-minute decision to re-CGI the leading ball of fur, this is film with no solid identity. As luck would have it, the film sometimes accidentally produces moments of comedic genius, but these seem less like deliberate choices and more like happy accidents. Most tellingly, all such accidents occur when the title character is not on screen.
Once upon a time, Sonic would have made sense as the basis for a film. The second iconic video console figure after Nintendo’s Mario, “Sonic the Hedgehog” was the flagship game of SEGA Genesis, which arrived at the end of the 1980s. The little blue creature’s game wasn’t much different from its competitors, running along little 8-bit animated levels populated by bad guys like Doctor Ivo "Eggman" Robotnik. The main difference was that his path was filled with rings, which made a slot machine-style sound as the creature gathered them up.
But despite Sonic’s popularity, SEGA didn’t last very long; on January 31, 2001 it stopped making hardware entirely. Since then, there have been a few Sonic games launched by SEGA as nostalgia titles, but this is not a character beloved by Gen Z. Sonic certainly doesn’t have the cultural currency of Pikachu, who got a movie last year. That means the film is itself something of a nostalgia play, aimed at men now in their 30s and 40s who remember the little blue dude with fondness.
And if the film had just committed to just being a 1990s throwback, it might have been ok. Sadly, “Sonic” clearly didn’t think the older millennial/Gen X male market was big enough. Instead, it also tried to contort itself into a family film, dipping in and out of scenes written with 8-year-old kids in mind. These are intermixed with scenes that parody famous war films, sports films and action films — there’s a long joke about the movie “Speed” — as well as other random cultural references that mostly feel out of place. Also, did I mention that all of these references are crammed into the film’s first 15 minutes?
That someone important thought it would be a good idea to give (both versions of) Sonic human teeth is merely one aspect of how confused this film is, especially since the lead human actor, Jim Carrey, looks just like a walking cartoon. But unlike Sonic, who is voiced by Ben Schwartz with a mile-a-minute hipster affect, Carrey, at least, understands how to make his character appealing, as does the other live-action lead, James Marsden.
Marsden plays Tom Wachowski, the town sheriff and simple-hearted good guy. Carrey plays Dr. Robotnik, a cartoonishly evil government bureaucrat. Every time the two come face to face on screen, the movie turns into a madcap comedy. Watching both actors’ eyes sparkle as they push to get through each scene without cracking each other up is something special. Too bad these scenes work best when no one has to worry about the annoying CGI rodent in the corner.
In fact, Carrey is the movie’s secret weapon and MVP. If this film is a '90s throwback, then Carrey’s performance is a throwback to the early years of his success. The film gives him plenty of room to enjoy his big-screen comeback, too. The most joyous moment of the entire movie comes around the midpoint, when Carrey is left alone on screen for almost ten minutes inside the confines of Robotnik’s lab. Evil discoveries mesh with dance breaks and random bits of physical comedy.
One can only hope this misbegotten mashup of a film is as least the beginning of a Jim Carrey-aissance. Still most of Carrey’s best moments have nothing to do with the plot. Thus, ultimately, “Sonic the Hedgehog” is a film that works best without the Sonic character, which is to say it doesn’t work very well at all.