Let’s be honest. There was a whole lot working against the Sonic The Hedgehog movie. When you have to push the release date of your video game adaptation back because your main character looks like an unholy abomination escaped from the deepest heart of the Uncanny Valley, things are off to a rough start. Was it worth the time and money spent? Well, mostly. Sort of. Really, it’s not that bad.
The character in question is, of course, Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz), an alien hedgehog with the ability to travel at supersonic speeds. Having fled his home to avoid his powers being exploited, he ends up hiding out on Earth. He spends his time observing the town of Green Hills, especially Sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden). When Sonic is discovered, he has to enlist Tom’s help to avoid being captured and dissected by the mad scientist Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey), who wants to use Sonic’s abilities to fuel his schemes for world domination.
There isn’t much to Sonic’s first theatrical outing. Not really much of a story, not really anything unexpected in terms of narrative. You could probably work out most of the story beats from the trailers. But that’s not entirely a bad thing. The film, like its speedy blue protagonist, is quick and efficient and errs on the side of fun with a script that’s just the right amount of clever. Unlike the trainwreck Super Mario Bros. film, Sonic sticks mostly to the lore established in the very first game and doesn’t try to make itself seem like more than it is with unnecessary world-building or overly mature themes. Fans of the franchise will probably grouse about the lack of characters and references from the games, but in this case, leaner is definitely better.
Sonic is here to give the audience a good time, to inject a little excitement into our lives. If you’re young enough to remember when Sonic’s first game debuted on the Sega Genesis, you’ll remember the rush you got playing a platformer where the main character sped around like a rocket. It’s that type of energy that the film is really aiming to deliver, and though it doesn’t always succeed, the attempt itself is admirable. Even if it comes at the expense of a deeper story.
But that story isn’t even really the heart of the film, anyway; it’s all about the people. Not just Sonic, but the whole cast. The main focus here is squarely on the relationships between the characters. This is a film about who Sonic is, not about what Sonic does. That might seem like an odd angle to take, but it’s a welcome one.
Remember that revision of Sonic’s design that delayed the film? Probably the best $5 million Sega ever spent. This film would literally have been a disaster had the original design been kept. It never would have come close to working. It would have been impossible to sympathize with the character. By trying to make his design more realistic, the production team ironically made him less relatable. We all make choices, and that original design was a choice.
But the Sonic we get is, quite honestly, one of the best video game characters on screen in quite some time. Ben Schwartz’ vocal performance is consistently on-point and possessed of an infectious type of accessible anarchic energy. His Sonic isn’t the confident, cool character a lot of fans know but is instead a younger, less experienced and less assured version of himself. And honestly, that works far better for the film. Sonic here is really like an adolescent who needs direction, and that allows Schwartz a lot of space to deliver a very colorful, endearing, three-dimensional performance.
It also allows a lot of dynamic energy to develop between both Sonic and Tom as well as between Sonic and Robotnik. Tom is an authority figure that can provide Sonic with the kind of guidance he needs to become a better person, while Robotnik represents the kind of authority who seeks to repress and hide Sonic’s nature. Tom views Sonic’s powers with a kind of fascination and awe and encourages him to claim his own identity, while Robotnik sees those same powers as something to be controlled and exploited because of Sonic’s alien origins. Both relationships are fascinating in their own way, and they’re far, far more interesting than the actual narrative of the film.
Part of that is due to the performances of both Jim Carrey and James Marsden. Marsden seems like a ringer here, almost typecast. With his thick neck, defined jaw, and classic Hollywood looks, he seems right at home playing a small town sheriff. He doesn’t have to do much to make Tom work as a character, but he never sleeps on the job. His chemistry with Schwartz is only rivaled by the chemistry he shares with Tika Sumpter, who plays Tom’s wife Maddie. One of the film’s biggest flaws is that Sumpter isn’t given nearly enough to do, because she’s friggin’ awesome every time she’s on screen.
But what really brings the film to life is Jim Carrey in perhaps the most Jim Carrey role he’s played in a very, very long time. He was essentially cast to play himself cosplaying as Robotnik, and both he and I are totally here for it. Carrey looks like’s having the time of his life, and he sinks his teeth into the role with abandon. Robotnik’s eccentricities help to hide a genuinely devious and dangerous mind, and Carrey’s famously expressive face and line deliveries sell that perfectly. This a version of the character that’s just as cartoonish, but often in a disturbingly, deliciously tactile way.
Beyond all that, the film is genuinely great to look at. The CGI work is well-done, and Sonic looks well-integrated into his surroundings. That he can still look kind of like an animated character and fit in the frame as well as he does is admirable. The effects team also gets to indulge themselves with a few bullet time sequences that resemble abbreviated versions of the Quicksilver scenes from the X-Men films. They’re not as elaborate or articulate, but they work well and help sell the action scenes.
For all the great effects work, though, not a lot went into making the world of the film — which, it must needs be remarked is the real world — to seem as alive and vibrant as Sonic himself. Roads are conspicuously empty, and the streets of San Fransisco seem oddly quiet. There’s enough there to get the story moving from scene to scene, but not much more than that. On top of that, the sound mix could have used a bit of extra tweaking when the film went back for that remix, as the nuances and 8-bit flourishes of Junkie XL’s otherwise beyond-solid score often get lost in the sound bed.
It might sound surprising to say it, but Sonic the Hedgehog is actually a good time bordering on exciting. What it lacks in depth and scope it more than makes up for in energy. You know what? I’m not mad at it, and Ben Schwartz’ performance as the Blue Blur is more than enough to recommend it. It might not be as electric as Sonic himself, but it’s a fun little jolt.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-