If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember the childhood tradition of sitting down with a bowl of sugary cereal to watch Saturday morning cartoons. Bright colors on the screen, bright colors in your bowl, and neither one really all that good for you. But when you’re a kid, you don’t care about that. You just live for the sugar rush and the excitement of some loud, nonsensical animation. Sonic The Hedgehog 2 thrives on that same kind of energy, specifically targeting the kids from back in the day who nostalgically buy their Lucky Charms and 80s DVDs full well knowing (and likely not caring about) the lack of nutritional value.
The sequel to the surprisingly entertaining and put-together first Sonic movie, this one finds the titular hedgehog (voiced by Ben Schwartz) undergoing something of an identity crisis. While he’s found a family, he doesn’t know where he fits in with the rest of the world, and his attempts to use his powers to help others tend to end up in disaster. He gets a chance to test himself when Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) returns to Earth madder than ever, and with a super-strong ally in Knuckles the echnida warrior (voiced by Idris Elba). It’s up to Sonic and his new pal Tails the fox (voiced by Colleen O’Shaughnessey) to stop them from finding the location of the Master Emerald, an artifact that can turn thoughts into reality.
That was a lot of exposition for a film that really doesn’t have too much of a clear, ordered story. But I should pause here to say that I have not come to bury Sonic but to praise him…in a measured, qualified, and occasionally sarcastic way. Because while this film like its predecessor is fun, colorful, and features some excellent voice acting and performances, it also isn’t as coherent and sometimes seems more concerned with laying down lore for the future than narrative.
So let’s start with that. The story here is frankly all over the place. While the previous film succeeded with a relatively contained, leaner story, this one aims for something bigger but occasionally overshoots the mark. There is a lot of lore and exposition thrown at the audience in the first act, much of seeming to come from nowhere. The first film restricted itself essentially to only lore from the very first video game, but this film pulls it from all over the franchise in an attempt to quickly expand the palette. Once it’s all laid down, the film runs a little more smoothly, but for those unfamiliar with the games that first act can be something of a head-spinner. However, the die-hard Sonic fans a few rows ahead of me in the theatre were eating it all up.
This film seems very determined to play to those hardcore fans, too. It’s bursting with easter eggs and references to various games and even to Sega itself. The first film found a good balance between catering to the fans and to the uninitiated, but this one leans heavily into the fandom side of things. I should point out that this in and of itself isn’t a bad thing; in fact, I often find it as a sign that the production gives a good, solid damn about the source material. It can get a little tedious by the end of the film, but at least the gags are spread out evenly over the film’s run time.
One bonus the film has going for it is the return of its creative team, including director Jeff Fowler. Folwer imbued the first film with a distinct and infectious energy, sometimes literally speeding through the flaws of the film to get to the next bit of excitement. He’s clearly trying to up the ante here, and he mostly succeeds. The action scenes are fast and furious, especially the extended final battle, and he knows how to deploy his action figures properly. He has a good sense of what the characters can do, how they move, and how they react. He might not be too concerned with the laws of physics — and really who would want him to be — but his sense of place, structure, and flow is very much on point. All of these action scenes make perfect sense in the context of the film, even if that context itself is kind of…let’s call it extraordinary.
The script here isn’t quite as solid, and it often seems to be doing a lot; one might may say more than it can handle. The humor here relies heavily on quantity over quality, but it’s still quite enjoyable, and the pop culture riffs land more often than not. The emotional side of the screenplay is concerned with Sonic trying to become a hero, and there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done before. However, there is one very distinct reason why even the weakest parts of the script come off well.
What makes most of the film, despite its shortcomings or eccentricities, is the cast. Like the first film, we have a committed and talented cast ready to bring their best game (or at least a very good game) to the roles. They sell the humor, they draw our hearts in, and they make us want to keep going to the next scene.
Ben Schwartz once again demonstrates how perfect he is for Sonic himself. Once again he strikes a good balance between brash and genuine, giving Sonic a distinctly chaotic good type of energy. The writing for him isn’t quite as consistent, but Schwartz gives it his all just the same. Colleen O’Shaughnessey as Tails is a highly welcome presence, especially for fans. She’s been voicing Tails in the games since 2014, and she gives the character a classic cartoon sidekick voice without sacrificing nuance or emotional intelligence. Tails might not get as much to do as we’d like, and he’s even sidelined for a good portion of the film, but he’s instantly likeable. Idris Elba does a good job with Knuckles, and he’s honestly great casting for the role, but he gives the character an odd, unplaceable accent that sometimes hamstrings his delivery. It’s very much a Counselor Troi situation, and it’s easy to find yourself focusing more on parsing the accent than enjoying the performance.
The human cast isn’t always as entertaining, but they’re clearly enjoying themselves. James Marsden and Tika Sumpter are still great as Tom and Maddie, Sonic’s adopted parental figures. While there’s new emotional levels for them to explore, they don’t get to do as much as hoped. The film goes out of its way to downplay Tom’s physical characteristics, despite the fact that this James Marsden is kind of the very definition of traditionally attractive. However, it lets Marsden be a bit more of an adorable goofball and he plays very much into Tom’s more vulnerable and humorous sides. Sumpter’s Maddie has more agency this time around, but she’s still sort of under-utilized. There’s an entire subplot about Maddie’s sister’s wedding that actually does factor into the story but takes up far too much time. However, it’s sold completely by Natasha Rothwell as Maddie’s sister Rachel, who steals every scene she’s in.
But of course, the star of the show once again is Jim Carrey as Dr. Robotnik. If Schwartz’s Sonic is chaotic good, Carrey is chaotic evil personified to the nth degree. Emphasis very much on the chaotic. Carrey digs into his role with a leveled-up kind of relish, in many ways becoming the Robotnik most fans expected from him in the first film. He has the super-stache, and Carrey himself even tried to get Robotnik’s traditional round costume featured (but the studio said no). His performance has the energy of a master improviser, and he’s all over the map in the best ways. He keeps his performance humorous but doesn’t hide the actual menace and malevolence of the character. It might be odd to say and even odder to hear, but Robotnik could be one of Carrey’s best roles ever.
There’s also a very interesting dynamic explored between Robotnik and his assistant Stone, once again played by Lee Majdoub. While Stone was always slavishly devoted to his boss in the first film, this one sees them with a distinct Mr. Burns/Smithers energy, with the handsome and meticulously-groomed Stone openly expressing homoerotic feelings toward Robotnik. There’s even a scene where Stone is coming up with “makeover costumes” for his boss, and if you blink you’ll miss that one of the options is a French maid uniform. It’s a curious twist, but one that isn’t played for mockery.
Between that and the constant near-swears in the dialogue (the winner being “this piece of shiitake planet”), I’m amazed the MPAA kept this film at a family-friendly PG rating. Especially because it has the distinct energy of a more adult-skewed PG-13 blockbuster. That might be a secret to the film’s appeal. On its surface, there are several things that don’t work, but you know what? I don’t really mind that much.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is very much a sugar cereal on Saturday morning. It’s part of a “well-balanced breakfast”, but only if you count the juice, milk, and toast served with it. And that’s just fine. In fact, it’s kind of ideal, especially if you’re a grown-up who’s specifically seeking that out. Who needs nutritional value when you’re having this much fun? Sure you might get a bit of a headache when you finally come down off that sugar high, but the rush is worth all of it.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-