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 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 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.
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.