One of the best moments of Sonic the Hedgehog doesn’t even take place in the film itself. Before even Paramount Pictures’ signatory logo splash appears on-screen — the recognized stars replaced by Sonic series-staple rings — a 16-bit slice of gameplay showing Sonic in his hay-day, pans out to reveal a vast tile-for-tile compilation of Sega’s vast gaming catalog. Where some may only remember Sega for their blue-blur mascot, you and I will likely recall the very many titles Sega — as both a developer and a publisher — are responsible for. For someone like myself, Sonic the Hedgehog’s 2020 film adaptation couldn’t have gotten off to any better a start, admittedly through the application of some easy, nostalgic, video game enthusiast bait. But credit where credit’s due: to see glances of Yakuza, Valkyrie Chronicles and Super Monkey Ball to name a few, helping to architect the grand panning out. Ultimately revealing the iconic Sega logo, complete with charming, operatic rendition of the old “SE-GAAAAA!” start-up jingle.
It’s a welcome sign of what was to come during Sonic’s near-100 minute venture onto the big-screen this year. What follows is the kind of video game adaptation that I can get behind: the kind of film that respects, not smears, its fans. One that leans in on the nostalgic joy of long-time/die-hard fans, but doesn’t exploit it in some vain attempt to distract or disguise. One that — choppily written, questionably edited via some odd CGI that doesn’t quite meld with the live-action and writing that’s generally easy to pick apart with its many tone shifts and undeveloped moments — manages to look past such failings. Delivering a film that’s enticing to dig into and is above all else honestly entertaining. As the conversation with video game adaptations generally go, or more specifically the conversation surrounding recent adaptations go, many people have been quick to draw comparisons with Detective Pikachu. Nintendo/The Pokemon Company’s own interpretation of an iconic IP, transcribed into film format. A premise similarly built and structured around a mix of live-action and CGI creation. Human and non-human characters co-existing within the same framework. Only this time, unlike Detective Pikachu, Sonic does at least try to move past the novelty of its visuals. The alien, other-worldly runaway Sonic, now finding himself (for all intents and purposes, hiding) in Green Hills, Montana in what is set up as a story about companionship, friendship and the importance of not being afraid of who you are, what you are and where you’re from.
That at least is the film’s more thematic proposal here and while the end result is a so-so mish-mash of half-baked sentiments, hit-and-miss jokes and cliches we’ve seen many a time in better-structured, Sonic the Hedgehog’s greatest strength isn’t the unique scripting of its themes or messages. While there are real-world, cultural references and eye-rolling, *wink-wink-nudge-nudge* placements that only pull the veil back on the film’s lingering boardroom/committee approvals, the film doesn’t entirely come across as one manufactured to within an inch of its sentiment life. Whose direction and composition feel so painstakingly measured so as to maximize the most revenue from the presumed, tasteless masses. No, Sonic feels more like an appreciation for what it’s representing. Not just for the material it’s pulling from, but of the fans who’ve made this IP, this character, who and what it is in today’s gaming and grander cultural landscape.
One of the biggest laughs the film managed to snatch from out my person came in the form of a reference to a particularly [in]famous internet meme during the film’s first quarter-or-so. While it wouldn’t be the only meme-worthy reference or Easter egg to spot, it was the way such a thing was incorporated, both in its visuals as much the context of the storytelling being presented, that worked so well. Naturally, Sonic the Hedgehog is chock full of Easter eggs to spot; I counted eight on my first viewing including, but not limited to: Sonic’s idle animation, Badniks, a hatred of water and the notion that one has “gotta go fast!” And yet the best part of all this is the film’s treating of such fan service as something to eagerly, voluntarily spot. Rather than of something shoe-horned in and forcibly thrust on the viewer. As previously mentioned: to perhaps distract or pad out an otherwise stale scene. Was the film guilty of scenes, and of jokes, that lacked originality or simply didn’t hit either in a comedic or otherwise dramatic direction? Absolutely; for one fart jokes rarely, if ever, land. An early scene involving Sonic playing baseball on his own, which then leads to the blue hedgehog having some form of emotional withdrawal and unleashing an implied EMP blast across the entire Pacific North-West, feels tonally inconsistent, desperately implemented so as to progress the plot, and lacking in any convincing development to Sonic as a character. Outside of some momentary commentary on his loneliness and wish to make at least one friend in life. The “power of friendship” becoming the oh-so-predictable McGuffin that the film’s climax relies upon.
Other scenes suffer more from a general lack of creativity or relevance outside of cheap, visual spectacle. A scene which attempts to render Sonic’s super-speed in “real-time” during a bar fight, only serves to rip off the more memorable and better incorporated Quicksilver set-piece from X-Men: Days of Future Past. A blatant carbon-copy, right down to the cue of musical change and closing shot of time reverting to normal, whereupon all of Sonic’s set-ups play out. Another scene involving Jim Carrey’s type-cast, slapstick stylings via Dr. Robotnik descends into an unnecessary montage of the increasingly-obsessed, bordering-on-misanthropic roboticist, dancing during what could only be surmised as that character’s most important, most break-through work in his career. Proceedings by no means helped by a fellow supporting character (not for the first time) being shunted into scene, to be nothing more than a door-mat with which Carrey/Robotnik can wipe his egotistical, repetitive punch-lines all over. Not the most memorable or stand-out role in the famed Canadian actor’s career, but a role he does serve and offer suggestion of enjoyment enacting, if not in exemplary fashion.
But while the general cast and writing is by no means anything to write glowingly about, it mustn’t be understated how well the film avoids playing too many of its hands in what many would assume is the first act in a grander slew of adaptations. In a film chock full of references and call-backs and winks to the fans watching, there are no mentions of emeralds, Chemical Plants, casinos or Sonic entering some gold-furred “Super” state. “Eggman” is mentioned (in what is one of the film’s less-subtle dishing out of references) and the final showdown if you will has the Doctor adorned in his signature red-and-white attire. Yet for the mountains of source material the series has carved out for itself, through either direct releases or indirect support material like comics and TV shows, or too Sonic’s knack for being meme’d to death on the internet — Sonic the Hedgehog is surprisingly conservative in what is wants to cover. Better still, there’s at least some attempt to establish a set of in-world rules of which the story must abide by, and at least doesn’t feel like it ends on some cheap, deus-ex-machina of resolving said dilemma. This isn’t Detective Pikachu, in which an interesting proposition (the fact a human can communicate with a Pokemon) followed by a dire turn of events, are explained and neutralized equally pathetically without even trying to tackle the very “what-if” that that film’s final act really should have followed through on.
Instead, Detective Pikachu comes across more corporate-controlled and reservedly middle-of-the-road than Sonic is. It may have appealed to the core of long-time Pokemon fans, but it came at the cost of a plot fueled by many a convenience, plot-hole and contrivance alike. And to top it all off: was ultimately too afraid of exploring an idea its final act proposes, only to reverse any and all themes it might have otherwise presented, for the sake of some drab “happy” ending so as to maintain face. Again, Sonic the Hedgehog also has its issues when it comes to character motivations, plot progression and the tone with which the film erratically jumps between without care for establishing the scene it’s incorporated within. But where Detective Pikachu is merely translating the Pokemon IP to the big-screen, Sonic the Hedgehog is at least attempting to convey a story that goes outside the framework of its mainline series of games. It’s not trying to cram every scene with video game references or characters you may or may not know; the film is its own interpretation of the fiction and the character, but doesn’t make the mistake of betraying the source material fans know best. It’s an alternate universe that respects the property, not one that aims to rewrite what’s come before. It doesn’t always work, but in the end, Sonic is at least slightly more committed to upholding its series’ legacy whilst also entertaining those of us who may or may not have grown up with the IP.
In a theater showing that had families of little kids and individuals my own age (minus kids) is a sign that Sonic the Hedgehog has at least managed to maintain a far wider demographic of interest than perhaps its target market suggests. After a near-universal back-lash against the character’s former design unveiled in the film’s teaser trailer, the onus while initially on Paramount to respond to such an outcry, would inevitably lay at consumer’s feet. Again, credit to the team for even going back and recognizing the backlash, but credit too for fans as well in upholding their side of the supposed deal. After one week of release, Sonic the Hedgehog has now reportedly raised a global box office of nearly $130 million. Beating out its nearest rival, Detective Pikachu, to become the most successful video game adaptation to film of all time. Despite a middling critical reception, with a current rating of 64% on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing, no one should be surprised that film critics haven’t received the film as warmly as fans or regular movie-goers. While some of the criticism is warranted, reviews for the most part look to have missed the point as to Sonic the Hedgehog’s appeal. Objectively flawed it might be with it script and broader direction, the film’s commercial appeal lies with the passion of its fanbase, but also the self-aware humility the film makes abundantly clear on what Sonic, as a series, means in 2020. A series that is praised passionately and ridiculed vehemently in equal fashion. A fact the film is all too aware of — taking great pride and even-greater potential with reflecting on through its abundance of call-backs, but also its restraint on how much to offer up at this early stage.
As such, I look forward to a possible sequel — a sequel that, maybe through naive and hopeful optimism, can be better written and structured. But a sequel, in more realistic terms, that finds the means to expand on the template it’s established with whatever (or whoever, as the film’s mid-credits scene so obviously portrays) it could be alluding to. Above all else, honestly, as a sucker for this kind of set-up: the whole humans from the real world mingling with non-human characters from another world premise. A fascination that stretches all the way back to my days as a kid (when Space Jam and Pokemon’s long-standing rival, Digimon, were my go-to favored material) and continues on in such things like Isekai brand of anime, Sonic the Hedgehog is surprisingly effective in reminding even the most jaded of us of the days glued to one’s Sega Megadrive/Genesis. Playing the original trilogy and enjoying what was on offer — extending that interest to such things like its cartoon adaptations and its line of comics from time to time. It’s not exactly a high bar to meet, but 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog easily sits among the top tier of video game adaptations we’ve [un]fortunately been treated to over the years. Roll on Sonic 2 — Sega and Paramount have, miraculously and just about, done the blue blur and the fans justice.