SONIC THE HEDGEHOG – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation), James Marsden (Enchanted), Jim Carrey (The Mask), Tika Sumpter (Ride Along), Adam Pally (Iron Man 3), Neal McDonough (Captain America: The First Avenger)

Director: Jeff Fowler (Gopher Broke)

Writers: Patrick Casey & Josh Miller (Transylmania)

Runtime: 1 hour 39 minutes

Release Date: 14th February (US, UK)

Sonic the Hedgehog may be an icon of the video game world so ubiquitous that he’s familiar to even those who don’t play video games, but regardless he is an odd choice to get the movie treatment. He may have a fervent fanbase and a huge library of games, but story and character have never been the strong suit of the franchise no matter how many DeviantArt forums will tell you otherwise. Given those circumstances, seeing the character shoved into a well-worn family movie formula is ultimately not too surprising. What is surprising is how much Sonic the Hedgehog actually works as a movie despite its more unimaginative elements.

The plot of Sonic is certainly amongst its weaker qualities. It lacks originality and relies heavily on tropes to the point that every development is predictable from a mile away. The film does seem aware of this and attempts to lampshade this by cutting to the chase, but regardless it’s all very workmanlike; nothing is particularly done badly, but none of it stands out either. Whilst no film with this tone and audience needs to be longer than 100 minutes, the story does feel quite rushed and unfinished at points, as if various different drafts were mashed together or chunks were lost in editing. For example, the entire subplot surrounding Tom’s fugitive status is feels tacked-on and barely impacts the narrative, whilst the prologue backstory for Sonic feels like it came from a completely different movie. With all that said, the movie manages to function purely thanks to its enthusiasm, humour and heart. Though it’s all tame and family-friendly, there are a fair few decent gags from the likes of both Sonic and Robotnik, and it generally avoids relying on potty humour or tired pop culture references. More surprisingly, though occasionally trite, the film does mine some pathos out of its themes of overcoming isolation and discovering where you belong. None of it is particularly revolutionary, but there is at least some effort on an emotional level to make this more than just an exercise in brand management.

Though many of the specifics have drastically changed and evolved over the years, Sonic as a character has always been defined by his cheeky demeanour and 90s-brand attitude. In terms of translating that into a three-dimensional character, Ben Schwartz has done a commendable job of making Sonic likable and even relatable. He imbues him with an infectious child-like wonder and a self-deprecating sense of humour that’s quickly endearing, but he also finds some depth in his feelings of desperation and loneliness and how that drives his erratic personality. The material is somewhat limited, but Schwartz consistently finds ways to embellish the base material and keeps the movie lively when the plot feels like coasting.

James Marsden feels a tad typecast playing small-town sheriff Tom and never quite embraces the ridiculousness of the premise, but he is nothing but consistent in his performance and has a decent repartee with Schwartz. Tika Sumpter feels a tad tacked on as Tom’s wife Maddie, but her chemistry with Marsden is strong and their relationship has some interesting kinks to it that avoid making it a cookie-cutter dynamic, whilst both Adam Pally and Neal McDonough are saddled with one-note side characters that don’t really demand actors of even their stature. However, Jim Carrey ultimately steals the show as Dr. Robotnik. Though a bit of a far cry from his video game counterpart, Carrey does embrace the cartoony nature of the character and delivers an unhinged and thoroughly entertaining performance. Much like Schwartz, he manages to elevate the ho-hum material handed to him and adds some intricacy to Robotnik’s motivations, characterising him a crazed narcissist with a single-minded obsession to prove himself better. It’s easily Carrey’s best strictly comedic performance in over a decade, and easily the most appealing element of the film to those not already heavily invested in the Sonic franchise.

Image result for sonic the hedgehog 2020 robotnik

Much of the pre-release chatter about the film was Sonic’s drastic redesign during post-production, which saw the Blue Blur turned from a cartoon hedgehog to an unappealingly lanky Dr. Moreau creature to a happier medium between classic and realistic. Though perhaps not quite as impressive as the character designs in Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, Sonic himself ultimately looks like his iconic self and translates surprisingly well into 3-D space. The visual effects are suitably cartoony without feeling totally unreal, adapting concepts from the games into live-action with surprising adeptness and verisimilitude. The film’s action sequences are disappointingly brief and intermittent, but they’re all executed with good humour and craft. There are some clear cues taken from the Quicksilver sequences in the recent X-Men films, but they’re still a blast to watch and incorporate many of Sonic’s classic moves into the action. Tom Holkenborg’s score is effective if a tad forgettable save for some clever references to music cues from the games, whilst Wiz Khalifa’s tie-in song “Speed Me Up” is honestly a pretty decent track with a catchy and energetic beat; it’s no “Escape from the City”, but it is good workout playlist material.

Sonic the Hedgehog is a pretty by-the-numbers kids’ movie that does the bare minimum in some essential areas, but there are clearly enough people working behind the scenes trying their best to elevate it. It’s a flawed but endearing film with a naïve energy and wry self-awareness, occasionally hitting sparks of genius in the midst of its humdrum narrative. It’ll certainly appeal to Sonic fans with its appealing character design and numerous Easter eggs (if you are a fan, do stay through the credits!), but it’s harmless and appealing enough that a more general audience will find something to like too. There’s a decent backbone here to build a franchise out of, but if they proceed the filmmakers need to embrace the idiosyncrasies of the property. Now the foundations are in place, there’s no need to play it safe with a formulaic plot. Bring in more of the classic Sonic elements and embrace the ridiculousness more. If the sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog can at least be as unapologetically dumb fun as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows or the 2017 Power Rangers movie, then I’m all for further adventures with this chilli dog-loving fiend. 

FINAL VERDICT: 6/10

Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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