Rife with callbacks to the classic Sega video game series, the family-friendly Sonic the Hedgehog movie is designed to please Sonic fans of all ages. However, if you’ve never really cared for the Blue Blur, you’ll probably want to avoid this flick like one of Dr. Robotnik’s badniks.
The premise that finds this freakishly fast character on Earth rightfully doesn’t take itself too seriously. Forced to flee his homeworld as a child to escape the grasp of the villains who want to use his super-speed abilities for evil, teenage Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) has lived in hiding in the town of Green Hills, Montana, for a decade. While not exactly the Green Hill Zone fans may remember from the original 1991 game, it is a nice homage to the sprawling paradise found in both acts of the first level in the Sega Genesis classic.
Isolated in our world, Sonic has no one to talk to but himself (and us, as he occasionally breaks the fourth wall, Deadpool-style), so Schwartz’s portrayal is unique in that sense than other depictions of the character in games and cartoons. But like the voice actors who came before him, Schwartz is able to invoke that thrill-seeking spirit Sonic is known for. Schwartz’s vocal performance is definitely up there with Sonic OGs like Roger Craig Smith and Ryan Drummond, giving him a similarly energetic and quick-witted personality. There are times where Sonic’s constant banter with himself grows maddening and a bit too cartoonish (perhaps not surprising in a PG-rated film aimed at children and families), but the character evolves once he is forced out of isolation in order to escape the clutches of Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) and befriends Tom Wachowski (James Marsden).
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From that point on the plot of Sonic the Hedgehog is as straightforward as the 1991 Genesis game: gotta go fast, make a mad dash to collect the rings, defeat the villainous Dr. Robotnik, then on to the next act. But there’s an additional element to round out the overarching story – it’s a movie about friendship. Tom is a character who’s looking for a little more purpose and meaning in his life, while Sonic is looking for a connection. They both find what they’re looking for in each other while on the run from Robotnik.
Given the dire circumstances Tom finds himself in while on the run with Sonic, it’s charming to see him take a break from the chaotic commotion and foster a relationship with the little blue guy. But as the film progresses, you begin to question why Tom would go to such great lengths for a creature he’s known for less than 24 hours. He’s a bored sheriff in a small town where not much happens, so I guess why not team-up with an anthropomorphic furry speed demon on the run from the government and an evil super-genius? This simple premise may advance the plot, but there just isn’t much more to it than that. Playing the live-action human companion to an animated protagonist could very easily be a thankless role for an actor, but Marsden manages to mine the heartwarming moments with Sonic (as well as with Tom’s wife Maddie, played by Tika Sumpter) even if it’s ultimately not a standout turn in his career.
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While it may be hard to believe anyone could compete with a CGI-rendered Blue Blur, the most animated character throughout the film is Jim Carrey’s Doctor Robotnik. Carrey’s physicality and comedic timing evoke memories of his Ace Ventura and Liar Liar heyday, proving the gifted comedian hasn’t lost his touch. Carrey’s comedic delivery and interactions with other characters are a winning combination within moments of his first appearance. Robotnik is typically the smartest man in the room, and he makes sure everyone is well aware of it and just what he’s capable of doing to their underdeveloped intellect.
The film does suffer from employing too many visual effects we’ve seen used countless times before, often with more creativity. For example, many will remember the scene from X-Men: Days of Future Past where time is rendered in super slow-motion as Quicksilver cleverly shifts things around while running. Sonic does the same exact thing here, but it’s far less inventive or witty; if anything, it is specifically a callback to what you’ve seen before, except, you know, with Sonic. Although it’s hard not to want to love the little guy throughout, Sonic’s personality just isn’t enough to overcome such worn-out ideas.
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Sonic the Hedgehog is more successful when it comes to nailing references to the source material. Director Jeff Fowler does an exceptional job stuffing in as many Easter eggs from the Sonic games as possible, to the point where hardcore Sonic fans may have to watch more than once just to catch them all. The nods to the gameplay mechanics – such as how Sonic loses his rings upon being hit by an enemy or the way he curls up into a ball and dashes to defeat them – land well and with believability here.
If you’re a Sonic fan worried whether this movie can truly encompass the nearly-three decade history of Sonic the Hedgehog, don’t be. While it’s lacking in some of the deeper cuts in Sonic lore, such as trapped animals in aggressive robots, and mystical emeralds, the essentials are all here. And the highly publicized and game-accurate redesign of the title character should keep fans more locked into the story of the fastest thing alive than had they been distracted by his off-putting original look.