Based on the Sega video game franchise of the same name, this movie had all the ingredients to be a disaster. Video game movies, as many already know, don’t have the greatest track record in Hollywood. The movie also boasts a rather small cast with the biggest star being Jim Carrey: someone who also doesn’t have the greatest track record these days. But probably the biggest obstacle the film faced was an onslaught of pre-release criticism.
When the first trailer was released, the title character’s on screen design was met with near-universal disdain from critics and fans of the game series. The visual effects team was criticized for making Sonic too realistic, not keeping to his design from the games. So the studio and first time director Jeff Fowler vowed to redesign the character, which seemed very much like a last ditched effort to try and save a movie that might not have anything to save in the first place.
So, after its very troubled production, Sonic the Hedgehog has finally hit theaters. It’s easy to understand why people wouldn’t have high expectations for it, so does it live up to that? Is it the massive disaster the pre-release controversy implied it would be? Does it exceed such expectations, or is it destined to be just another video game movie tossed in the trash like many of the others? Well, turns out, not so much.
Despite everything going against it, this is another successful entry in the recent winning streak of video game movies. I, of all people, am surprised that the studio was able to turn the film around so quickly and managed to actually fix it in the process. Many studios never seem to care about video game adaptations enough to actually try and make them good, so it’s refreshing that this one actually put in the effort to make it as good as it could be.
The surprisingly entertaining film places Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) in our world in a sort of Who Framed Roger Rabbit-style way. As a kid, Sonic was sent to live on Earth as a way to protect him from sinister forces that want his incredible powers. Now a teenager, Sonic longs for some kind of genuine connection despite forming indirect connections with the populace of the small town of Green Hills, Montana (named after the iconic opening level of the original Sonic game).
But he’s about to have his life changed when his powers draw the attention of Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey). Left with no other options, the government was forced to hire him based on his immense knowledge, despite clearly being a deranged lunatic. Now, Sonic is forced to reveal his presence as he introduces himself to Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), who promptly shoots him on sight with a tranquilizer gun.
Tom, who longs for a better life in San Fransisco, is very reluctant to help Sonic find out who, or what, he is. He only agrees when Robotnik turns his sights on Tom as well, trying to force him to turn over Sonic by depicting him as a bad guy. Now, the two are on a mad dash to recover Sonic’s only key to safety, along the way discovering that, despite being different species, they have more in common than they think.
This growing friendship between Tom and Sonic is one of the movie’s biggest strengths. James Marsden and Ben Schwartz have amazing comedic chemistry, making their interactions a true delight. Of course, it’s Marsden who really succeeds in forming a genuine connection with a CGI character that really isn’t there. That’s not an easy acting task to pull off but he manages to pull it off with flying colors.
But Schwartz also nails his performance as Sonic, imbuing him with all the attitude the character’s 90s personality is synonymous with while also adding a modern spin that makes him relevant to the comedic styles of today. Despite seeming like a cheap casting choice over more A-list stars, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part as well as he did.
Sonic’s success is also thanks to the last minute redesign which ends up being the biggest win for the film. It’s hard to imagine the original Sonic doing any of the kid-like, comedic things that the new Sonic does. His redesign perfectly blends into the world, and fits better with Schwartz performance, which didn’t really work with the original design. In the end, despite the trouble it could’ve have brought, the studio managed to turn a last minute decision into an absolute win.
However, the true great performance of the film is, surprisingly, Jim Carrey. Throughout his career, he has been known for a comedic persona that only works if he’s playing the right character. Movies like The Truman Show, Bruce Almighty, and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone make him a wonder to behold, while movies like Mr. Popper’s Penguins only make him seem like he’s trying too hard.
Here, his persona works fully in his favor, giving one of his best performances in years. He absolutely chews every scene as the ingenious yet genuinely threatening Dr. Robotnik. His jokes are almost always hilarious, ranging from light chuckles to full-blown belly laughs (mostly providing the latter). These days, it’s hard to imagine his shtick has any remaining potential. But turns out, just give him the right role and he can do wonders.
But while on the subject of humor, that’s one point where the movie slightly stumbles. The jokes consist largely of slapstick, Deadpool-style smack talk, and basic gross-out gags. While many of the jokes really do land hard, a lot of them showcase the rougher edges of this style. It’s easy to see that this humor is getting closer to losing its momentum, feeling more stale than refreshing.
Also, much like last year’s Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, the story doesn’t really do anything to reinvent the wheel. It’s a basic storyline that clearly takes inspiration from classics like E.T. and Deadpool and doesn’t really do much to give it some personality of its own. While there are very few bugs and glitches with the execution itself, the story feels more serviceable, only doing what it needs to to deliver what people expect rather than subverting their expectations.
But these are really only minor offenses for what is otherwise an entertaining film. It feels amazing that studios are putting more effort into making video game movies the best that they can be. Many other films, like 2018’s Tomb Raider and Rampage, felt very much like the studios never had faith in the film so they just threw something together. Here, it feels like they really cared about the film and wanted it to be as good as it could be.
Though it could have been a real trash fire, Sonic the Hedgehog manages to pull itself out of the hole it dug itself into to become one of the best video game adaptations. It boasts great performances, consistently hilarious jokes, a colorful visual style, and more than enough fan service to keep them happy, while also being open to new people who may not be familiar with the source material. Let this be another example that, with enough care and effort, it is possible for video game movies to be much more than the bottom of the barrel of the film industry.