If you are not a longtime videogamer, you may be unfamiliar with Sonic the Hedgehog, who will celebrate his 30th birthday next year. He is a smart-alecky teenage superhero who appeared on the planet Mobius in 1991 as the Sega company’s answer to Nintendo’s popular Mario. Sonic is known for his blinding speed, his blue fur and his iconic red shoes. He has appeared in 66 games, a comic strip and a cartoon series of limited distinction.
Over the years, Sonic has gathered a durable fan base that is heavily invested in its understanding of the hedgehog and his personality.
This group blew its stack last April when film previews showed a similarly colored but somewhat more animal-like Sonic who, worst of all, had TEETH. The objections were so strong that the film’s planned November 2019 release was cancelled so animators could extract Sonic’s teeth and give him his familiar, stylized look.
Sonic the Movie
The Sonic redesign seems to have satisfied the critics. It opened last week, and sales were very good indeed — even better than last year’s opening weekend for Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. (For context, let’s note that the Pikachu movie was ranked 19th in North American sales for 2019, just ahead of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.)
If only the filmmakers had managed to devise a marginally interesting story, Sonic the Hedgehog might merit all the attention it has received. But it comes up way short.
The plot: Sonic uses one of his magic rings to leave his home island and escape nasty predators. He arrives in Green Hills, Montana, where he spends 10 years hiding from the locals and growing very lonely. One evening, after playing a solo baseball game — being supersonic means he can play pitcher, batter, fielder and catcher — Sonic inadvertently sets off a power surge that causes the Joint Chiefs of Staff to call in the creepy and evil Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey,) a longtime foe in the Sonic oeuvre, to deal with the problem. Meanwhile, Sonic is discovered and befriended by Green Hills cop Tom Wachowski (James Marsden,) and the shock of their introduction causes Sonic to lose his bag of rings, which he must get retrieve. Cop and creature become a buddy team and set out for San Francisco, each for his own reason. Along the way they are pursued and menaced by Robotnik.
This is an unusual effort. Sonic is a computer-generated character amid human characters, including Robotnik, who is played by a human but whose authority and vehicles and weaponry clearly belong in some branch of the cartoon world. To be fair, the movie would be impossible without a mega-villain like Robotnik, and it is difficult to imagine anyone but Jim Carrey in the role.
That said, there are many weak spots. Midway along, the plot reveals a Sonic superpower that would have spared him the need to leave his island home. His magic rings allow Sonic to go only to one place except when they don’t. After his 10 years in Green Hills, he has figured out how to read, write, play popular games and make idiomatic jokes (like calling his policeman friend the “donut lord,”) but he’s still surprised by new terms. A scene set in a theoretically typical Montana redneck bar is just as unrealistic as Robotnik’s technological weaponry. All the characters are two-dimensional at best.
The result is a thin mess that seems to be aimed at young audiences while the most loyal Sonic devotees range in age from their late teen years to their 40s. These groups want different things in movies. For the kids, there are family themes and really nice people who prevail in the end. For the older set it has many knowing references that kids will not understand. For both it has Jim Carrey doing the floss dance.
The worst of it is this: Children deserve better.