Film Reviews

Sonic the Hedgehog: From Internet Cautionary Tale to Record-Setting Film

From Paramount’s point of view, Sonic the Hedgehog is a nostalgia play and/or a kid play at launching a new film franchise, but what if you don’t have much nostalgia for the little blue devil and can’t get any of the kids in your life to care about this strange movie? Are you just wasting your time and money on something that’s clearly not made for you? I would have thought so, but to my immense surprise, Sonic the Hedgehog is an imperfect, but mostly delightful family film with laughs for audiences of all ages regardless of your pre-existing awareness for the IP.

Still, it helps if you’ve played a Sonic game at least once in your life.


Sonic Vs. Mario. Genesis Kids vs. Nintendo Kids.

Sonic – the bright blue, spiky-haired furball first introduced to the world in 1991 – wasn’t a foundational piece of my childhood the way he was for so many others. However, confessions of a recovering video game addict, I once went into a stranger’s house just to play Sonic the Hedgehog on his Sega Genesis. It’s not as child predo as it sounds, but, still, it’s not great.

In 1991, I was 8-years-old and found myself at a block party with my family. It was a great opportunity to have fun with some friends, make some new ones, and maybe somehow end up in a stranger’s house. I met a kid my age who would not stop talking about video games, which was my favorite language at the time, but it was like he was using a different dialect. He kept using words like “Sega” and “Sonic.” Strange. Surely he meant to say “Nintendo” and “Mario.”

Yes, this was the dawn of the console wars, an eternal struggle between corporate juggernauts pursuing new technologies, killer games, and razor-thin profit margins. This year, it’s the Playstation 5 vs. Xbox X. Back then, it was the Sega Genesis vs. Super Nintendo, a battle ultimately won by the latter. By 2001, Sega discontinued its final gaming console, the Dreamcast, and shifted into third party video game development. The company’s marquee character, the blue hedgehog named Sonic, had starred into numerous game and animated TV shows by then and has lived on in the ensuing decades via new games of varying quality and short-lived animated shows.

Sonic’s everlasting appeal is certainly debatable, but in 1991, he seemed completely revelatory – cute like a stuffed animal, more detailed than Mario, and completely kinetic, rolling into a little ball and zooming forward really, really fast. Mind-blowing stuff for a kid back then.

To co-opt an old Nintendo slogan, playing Sonic the Hedgehog felt like you were finally “playing with power.”

To experience that, however, you had to own a Sega Genesis. I did not. I was a Nintendo kid. The stranger at the block party was a Genesis kid, and he swore up and down that Sonic was light years better than Super Mario World, which he’d somehow also played. We debated until he pointed out the obvious: how could I really know which was better if I hadn’t played Sonic? Clearly, I had to go to his house and play Sonic. Logically, that was only one way to settle this.

If only I’d thought to ask permission first. The kid told me it would be okay to go into his house because his dad was home. So, along I went. I recall a momentary feeling of panic, as I suddenly realized I was in a strange room with a strange kid and his oddly lingering dad in the hallway. It passed, though, and we took turns innocently playing Sonic the Hedgehog. I had barely adjusted to the different video game controller when the doorbell rang. It was my mom. She had already gone to several houses looking for me. My night, her face clearly communicated, was over.

I had yet to hear one of the scariest phrases in video game history: “It’s a me, Mario!”

I don’t recall how long I was grounded for going into a stranger’s house without permission, but I recall losing video game privileges for a week. That might have affected the following, but when I did play Super Mario World again for comparison purposes I decided that random kid was wrong: Sonic wasn’t better. It was just different, a side-scroller on crack with better graphics but lesser gameplay. Tempted by the fruit of another, I’d suffered for my transgression and returned home to Mario in the end.

Sonic, Meme Culture Victim

Until last year, that was literally the last time I ever actively thought about Sonic the Hedgehog. The character, games, and Sega consoles just didn’t really matter to me. As such, when the first trailer for the live-action animation Sonic the Hedgehog movie dropped and blew up the internet I had, at best, a passing, academic curiosity over the meme culture response.

Paramount – which picked up the Sonic film rights several years ago after Sony put it into turnaround – allowed first-time feature director Jeff Fowler to oversee a version of Sonic that took the titular character and animated him to look slightly like an actual hedgehog, and the fans weren’t having it. #NotMySonic became a thing. The fans made so much noise that Paramount blinked, pushing the release date and shoveling more money into the budget to execute a full character redesign. It couldn’t have been cheap. Since Sonic is in almost every scene, they had to re-animate nearly every frame of the film.

Image from New York Magazine. Moving Picture Company, one of the five effects companies that worked on Sonic, subsequently closed the 80-person, Vancouver-based branch that did all the work. That branch had also been responsible for Cats. An entirely different company, the Japan-baased Marza Animation Planet, handed all of the Sonic redesign work.

I had no particular dog – or, wait for it, hedgehog – in this fight, but I feared for the precedent this was setting. The internet has already done bad things to fandom’s general sense of ownership over IP, and fans forcing their collective will onto productions is how we end up with reactionary and highly confused projects like Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. In this particular case, the Sonic fans got what they wanted, yet they may have had a point. The redesigned Sonic is cuter and easier to look at, like an adorable stuffed animal come to life, but there’s a principle to worry about here. Since Paramount caved to Sonic fans, we are likely in store for more #SnyderCut or #AbramsCut movements and reactions which push fan gatekeeping on creators.

That was all the intellectual bandwidth I devoted to Sonic – a movie more important for what it says about fan culture in 2020 than what it has to say as an actual story about characters who want things.

Sonic, The Star of an Entirely Delightful Kids Movie

Then the review embargo lifted and most critics I follow filed surprisingly positive reviews of Sonic the Hedgehog. The word of mouth exploded, and the opening weekend box office set an all-time high for video game movies.

Hold on. Is Sonic more than just a cautionary tale? Is there actually a pretty worthwhile movie hiding in there somewhere?

The answer is yes. The story – a hyperactive, well-meaning alien refugee just wants a friend/family, a mad scientist wants to dissect him, his new human friends won’t let that happen, also, there are magic coins that act like Doctor Strange portals – is as familiar as they come, yet executed with utter sincerity. The cast plays to the material and genre instead of trying to seem ironically above it all or, worse, completely unengaged. So, you have James Marsden (as Sonic’s buddy, a small-town cop dreaming of taking the big leap to San Francisco) trading childish insults with Jim Carrey (as Dr. Robotnik, an egomaniacal jerk who prefers machines to humans) but doing so with respect for the kind of film they’re in.

Most importantly, Ben Schwartz does with Sonic the same thing he’s been doing as the voice of Dewey on the new Duck Tales for the past 3 years: high-energy comedy mixed with emotional vulnerability adding up to one completely lovable character.

That doesn’t mean Sonic is perfect. It’s actually quite a strange film. The script can’t quite decide if James Marsden – who, at 46, is a fair deal older than the usual Elliot-from-E.T. stand-in – and Sonic are having a buddy adventure together or if it’s more a surrogate father-son thing. Jim Carrey is up there on screen pretending like 1994/95 never ended, broadly channeling his cartoony turn as The Riddler, but as was true back then sometimes the man gives you a 20 when even an 11 would have been preferable. Natasha Rothwell ends up tied to a chair for the crime of being too sassy.

And yet, I found it delightful, a complete throwback with an iconic 90s video game character paired with a very, very 90s Jim Carrey performance and a down-the-middle family film plot whose ultimate outcome is never really in doubt. It’s the type of thing people who are kids now will look back on in 2040 with nostalgic fondness and perhaps some rose-colored glasses, assuming we can’t just do that kind of thing with an app in the phone injected into our eyeball at that point because, ya know, the future. In the here and now, though, parents and kids alike should find plenty to enjoy about this Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s not a revelatory work of kids movie storytelling, but it is more than passable, certainly good enough to make you forget about #NotMySonic, at least temporarily.

Now, both my niece and nephew want me to take them to see Sonic even though they were each strong “no”s when I asked them about this just last week. With some kids movies, you couldn’t pay me to see them a second time. In the case of Sonic, I actually don’t mind taking that bullet. Really, though, what other new family film option is in theaters right now?


Sonic vs. Mario. Which is better. Let me know in the comments. Also, ya know, if you want to talk about the movie we can do that too. In fact, you should probably lead with that.

16 comments

  1. It was seriously the coolest thing when that certain yellow sidekick character appeared during the mid-credits. The theater erupted with excitement. I hope for the kids sake, as well as my own, that the film makes enough money to justify making a sequel and that it can be as enjoyable and easy on the eyes as this one has been.

    1. Based on that opening weekend, I fully expect a formal sequel announcement soon. To be honest, though, my Sonic franchise knowledge is limited enough that when Tails popped up at the end it was the first time I’d ever even seen that character. The applause around me, however, was all the signal I needed to get the jist: oh, this is a fan favorite.

      Paramount got their fun origin story out of the way, and the film had enough cross-generational appeal to break box office records. Now, the fans are going to get a lot more of what they want in the sequel. The box office for this Sonic would have to seriously and quite epically crater in weeks 2, 3, and 4 to prevent that from happening.

      1. I was a Nintendo kid too! Thanks to my kids I’ve learned more about Sonic’s world.

        It will be interesting to see if any other video game characters will now get their chance at the big screen thanks to the successes of Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog. I can think of a few classic Nintendo characters that would be fun to see if done properly!

  2. Im not a major sonic fan either but he is a recognisable figure especially in my day. I actually enjoyed it more than Detective Pickachu which I assume was the catalyst to greenlight this film. i thought it was bold to make Sonic look like an actual hedgehog rather than the cartoon one as it is meant to be live action. However no doubt the new one will sell toys and is more faithful to the original. It was alright and reasonably fun but by no means hillarious. I had kids with me as my excuse. I could not watch this without them. They laughed occasionally. They loved the Tails reveal. What did stay in my mind though was the Sega intor that was very simlar to Marvel’s intor. Are we likely to see a sega universe in the same way we see Marvel rathr than a sonic sequel? I saw Golden Axe and many have argued it could be a film. There are other classics too and I am sure I saw a webpage on the possibilities, none of which I agree would make good films and none of which I think there would be a large fan following to see. Most of it wa 80s and 90s. Afterburner anyone? Streets of Rage got anyone excited? Shinobi was kicked around several times. Shinobi? Hardly a standout premise.

    1. Detective Pikachu – For me, Sonic and Pikachu really aren’t that far apart in terms of quality, but I’d give Sonic the slight edge, if only because of how distracting it is throughout Pikachu that Ryan Reynolds is just doing his Deadpool schtick minus the cuss words.

      As for whether one led to the other, it’s a natural assumption on your part, but you have to remember Sonic and Pikachu were originally supposed to come out in the same year. If not for Sonic’s VFX drama and release date delay, it would have hit theaters just 6 months after Pikachu. So, in this case Paramount didn’t greenlight Sonic because of Pikachu. Heck, Sega had a deal to make a Sonic movie as far back as 1994, but for a variety of reasons it didn’t happen until now. This particular version of the Sonic film has been in development since 2014, and they got really serious about it in 2016 when Jeff Fowler was hired as director. It basically ran on a parallel development track to Pikachu. The only causal relationship between the two? Eh, it’s certainly possible that Pikachu’s surprisingly strong box office might helped motivate Paramount’s decision to pay for the Sonic character redesign – at a reported cost of $5m – and push the release date. Pikachu possibly showed them how much money they could be leaving on the table if they didn’t mollify the fans at the cost of adding a little more to the budget.

      The kid experience of Sonic – I took my niece and nephew yesterday. The experience much as you described how it went with your kids – they laughed occasionally, loved Tails at the end, and ultimately had a good a time even as they conceded it wasn’t their favorite film or anything, just a good time at the movies. Also, yes, they both want a stuffed Sonic now.

      The Sonic future – That is a good question, and it’s not one I can completely answer largely because my Sega exposure is so limited that I don’t know if the IP would truly support a cinematic universe or not. My suspicion is no. Plus, one of the lessons I think Hollywood has learned the hard way over the past decade is that Marvel is really, really good at cinematic universes and everyone else sucks at it. (TV is a slightly different beast, however. The Arrowverse, regardless of your opinion of its actual quality, is an undeniable feat of universe-building across TV shows.) I’d imagine Sega would be more inclined to toy with launching any potential spin-offs out of a straight Sonic sequel, not in place of one.

      Other games prime for adaptation – They made not one but two Angry Birds Movies. After that, I’d say damn near any video game adaptation is on the table. I do think, however, that if you look at the recent success stories – Angry Birds, Detective Pikachu, Sonic – there is an obvious commonality: kid-friendly content that can be made on the cheap, relatively speaking. Sony, last I saw, has marching orders to get serious about finally porting some of its Playstation IP franchises to the big screen, which is why the world keeps on insisting an Uncharted film starring Tom Holland is truly going to happen (the past decade of development hell says otherwise.) Elsewhere, Microsoft is still developing a Halo TV series for Showtime. The problem, however, is the IP they have to work with there is really just a case of video games imitating movies, putting us the player in the body of an action movie hero. To then turn around and make that into a movie feels like a copy of a copy of a copy. Plus, those games already cover so much damn story there’s not much else for the film adaptation to add, which is how you end up with a Tomb Raider movie that is a sometimes shot-for-shot remake of a 2013 video game.

      So, if we’re speculating on what’s primed to be the next Pikachu or Sonic I’d bet more money on anything more kid-friendly and recognizable, but also light enough that some screenwriters can add quite a bit of their own ideas to the IP.

      1. Fair enough. Where is the like button on this website? Id still say the success of Picahu probably got rid of any obstacls in the long delayed Sonic movie. I cant think of any good movie adapts of games. Ok I liked Mortal Kombat even though they then went an made a game f the movie version too which was awful. I even liked DOA. I wanted to like Street Fighter as some things were good about it but..arghh..they got so much wrong in that film too. Watched Double Dragon and a bit of my soul disappeared. Doom..no..Didnt watch Mario Bros either. House of the Dead was Sega. That was terribile with spliced game scenes added to remind us it was based on the film.

  3. Guess the mostly lucked out with the timing, there aren’t currently a lot of alternatives for families.

    Anyway, I don’t care for either of them. I never understood the obsession with Sonic or Mario. To me it is like being overly obsessed over Pac-Man. Yes, it’s a memorable design, but I have a hard time to see them as characters.

    1. I agree about the timing. I wrote about this back when Incredibles 2 shattered opening weekend projects in 2018. Sometimes, an animated – or in Sonic’s case, half-animated – film’s box office success owes as much to timing as anything else. I see that firsthand with my niece and nephew. They have been conditioned their entire lives to expect to always have something worth seeing in theaters, thanks to the way animation, comic books, and live-action kids classic remakes have overtaken the industry and crowded out the type of product that has transitioned to streaming TV. Parents and/or guardians have gone through similar conditioning. Sometimes, you just need something to do with your kids outside of the house, and when theaters go for a couple of months without anything worth seeing families flock to the first new thing that comes along as long as looks at least marginally entertaining. (https://weminoredinfilm.com/2018/06/18/box-office-incredibles-2-benefitted-from-being-the-first-new-animated-movie-in-3-months/)

      It’s funny you mention that neither Mario nor Sonic seem like actual characters. I’d argue that’s actually to their benefit for film adaptation. As video game figures, they’re more mascot than character, but that leaves filmmakers with a lot of narrative leeway and frees the audience from feeling overly burdened by mythology expectations. Obviously, however, that led to infamous ruin with the live-action Mario movie in the 90s since the filmmakers made just about every wrong decision possible. Thankfully for Sonic, however, they ran with an origin story that’s easy to follow and gives the character a lovable personality and sympathetic back story, at least enough for kids to clap along when he gets his big hero moments in the story.

      Of course, I say that as someone who has never watched any of the surprisingly numerous Sonic TV shows. It’s entirely possible the film cribbed much of its story from there, but not knowing anything about Sonic’s back story actually helped me enjoy the film more.

      Also, at some point there was a Pac-Man cartoon series. Watched it with my nephew many moons ago. Was always amazed they somehow squeezed a narrative out of that particular game. Wouldn’t say the show or storylines were good, however. The nephew didn’t much care for it either.

      1. They could do Mario again if they get it right and I am strongly against reboots and remakes. People forget the Mario movie was the first game to be adapted to movies so at the time the direction was 90% on movie and 10% on game. Literally just the names and the title were used in favour of big names like Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper and some story that could have come from anywhere.

      2. I’d go see a Pac Man orgin story movie. If it was clever enough. How did Pac Man get his drug problem? Why is he haunted by ghosts?

  4. It’s so odd to me how the film was essentially bullied to change Sonic’s design lol. (Because when you trifle the online masses, fans punish you with the most devastating gavel of all: a hashtag.) But I’m glad the makers took constructive criticism out of the fervor and swung back in favor, like it’s own Cinderella story. Don’t think I’ll be seeing this one for myself, but I’d be curious to see a behind-the-scenes documentary of how that shit went down.

    1. If not a documentary, I imagine there will eventually be a highly entertaining oral history article. I imagine all the VFX people who worked on this, both the first iteration and the redesigned version, have some choice opinions, especially since the fiasco at least partially led to layoffs and the closure of an entire branch of one of the industry’s biggest effects houses.

    1. I’m inclined to agree. The film is a fun bit of entertainment for families and especially little kids, but the BTS documentary about what the heck happened here would be far more illuminating as a snapshot of fan culture shaping Hollywood corporate strategy

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