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Adapting any type of source material into a cinematic experience brings its own various challenges, and if anyone were to name one of the most difficult projects of that ilk, many would agree that video games have proven to be exceptionally troublesome. Sometimes, though (less often than some would hope for), things work out and a movie trying to bring pixels of action to the big screen gets it right.
Sonic The Hedgehog is that kind of movie, as director Jeff Fowler takes Sega’s long-running popular character and anchors him in the middle of our own reality. In the film, Sonic (Ben Schwartz) has been living in exile on Earth for about a decade and led a comfortable, but lonely existence of chaos and speed. While he plays things carefully for a long time in the sleepy down of Green Hills, however, a fateful incident unfortunately draws attention to his presence on this planet. With that undivided attention, he makes a new friend in local sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden,) as well as an enemy in the evil Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey.)
Sonic has to keep his head down while protecting his new friend, but also know when he’s gotta go fast. After all, having the government and a crazed genius tracking your every move doesn't leave a lot of ways to get around without detection. Which, of course, means that this stranger in a strange land will have to get around in one of the most classic ways possible: the surprise buddy road trip!
Sonic The Hedgehog is clearly made by people that understand the source material.
When making a movie that adapts something like Sonic The Hedgehog into a movie-going context, there’s always a worry that the folks crafting the narrative won’t understand what made the source material work in the first place. To this day, you can still say the words Super Mario Bros in a movie theater and be bound to freak someone out.
That’s not the case with Sonic The Hedgehog, as writers Pat Casey and Josh Miller write this comparatively low-speed journey with enough energy and personality to make this more traditional approach work with a character as exotic and otherworldly as its titular hero. While they do take some liberties with the series lore, there’s nothing so egregious that it would have hardcore Sega loyalists foaming at the mouth.
If anything, the way that Sonic The Hedgehog shuffles the cards of tradition with a fresh deck of surprises is pretty helpful. While other video game movies would want to get cute and stuff their introductory films with as many fan-centric references as they can, this film takes it easy and knows to ease the audience into things, whether they’re familiar with Sonic’s adventures or not.
Nostalgia plays a vital role in Sonic The Hedgehog, while making newcomers feel welcome as well.
There are enough Easter eggs, plot points, and sequel threads in Sonic The Hedgehog to truly engage folks who have played the many games that have been released through the decades. However, those nods and hints to where a potential franchise could go aren’t the overriding factor of the story. While there’s potential for a future in this world, this adventure could exist as a singular entry, and be pretty satisfying.
A big advantage this approach to Sonic The Hedgehog has is being able to cash in on is the fact that it’s a pretty good introduction to the character that makes the series what it is. Opting to put Sonic into a fish out of water story set mostly in the human world doesn’t overload people who aren’t familiar with the game, and allows people to get a better handle on what this supersonic hedgehog is all about.
It doesn’t matter if you grew up with a Sega Genesis in your living room, or if you’ve never touched a console in your life, as Sonic The Hedgehog offers thrills, comedy, and some more nuanced emotional beats for all to enjoy. Though, this does come at a price, as the narrative at play feels like it’s holding back a bit at times. There’s room for this story to go bigger, and get more intense, which ends up leaving the movie feeling like it’s just scratching the surface of its universe. While mildly frustrating, it doesn’t cancel out the goodwill that the story earns – but it does make you wish they’d have had more faith to dream a little wilder.
Ben Schwartz and Jim Carrey’s comedy chops tie together a mix between a low-key buddy comedy and over-the-top blockbuster.
Where Sonic The Hedgehog does go big is with its characters. Nowhere can that be seen more than in the central pairing of Ben Schwartz’s Sonic and Jim Carrey’s Dr. Robotnik. Whether they’re pitted against each other, or doing their own thing in their respective orbits, Schwartz and Carrey form the nucleus of why this movie works as well as it does.
In terms of the Sonic half of the equation, Ben Schwartz mixes together the fast paced wit that has long been associated with this character along with a loneliness we’re not used to. Most depictions of Sonic The Hedgehog’s protagonist are full of attitude and determination, but this new iteration mixes in a homesick nature that goes along with his newfound status as an alien on another planet far from home. It doesn’t quite reach E.T. levels of sentiment, but there’s still quite a bit of sympathy to be felt for Sonic as he teams with his human friend Tom.
On the Dr. Robotnik side of things, Jim Carrey has returned to his manic comedy roots in this larger than life fashion. Another trade-off between source material and Hollywood depiction, this version of the classic video game villain trades in his sinister edge for a more comedic unhinging. This is probably for the best, as pretty much any time Carrey’s on screen he inspires huge bouts of laughter with his trademark brand of schtick and shenanigans.
Having a good amount of levity involved in Sonic The Hedgehog makes everything keener for kids and adults to latch onto, while also allowing this introductory installment to breeze by. Though with deadpan timing, and an easy comic verve, both James Marsden’s Tom and Tika Sumpter’s Maddie make for some dryly funny laughs in the middle of the larger set-pieces that are in motion. So just when you think it's all going to fly off the handle, Marsden and Sumpter ground it all with a very identifiable, and very human energy.
It’s because of this combination of Sonic The Hedgehog’s characters that this movie feels like it could have existed back in the original heyday of the Sega video games. Rather than throwing the audience into an inter-dimensional adventure straight away, the buddy comedy that Ben Schwartz and James Marsden engage in, with Jim Carrey chasing them at every turn, feels like a classic blockbuster adventure rather than a hard edged “extreme” version that’s trying so hard to play to the kids. This video game movie does what others don’t. Playing in a sandbox that wears its heart on its sleeve, but isn’t afraid to go big and goofy, this is a starter film that has its eyes on the future, but doesn’t forget to do the job right in the here and now.