Sonic the Hedgehog features the directorial debut of Jeff Fowler, an animator whose credits include Where the Wild Things Are and a number of other projects as part of his company, Blur Studios, which he co-owns with Tim Miller, who recently directed Terminator: Dark Fate. Blur has done a number of high-profile projects, including cut-sequences in the Halo and Call of Duty video game franchises and the opening credits for David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Sonic is produced by Neal H. Moritz, whose Original Film banner helped create Fast & Furious, 21 Jump Street, xXx and the TV series Prison Break. Original Film has a production deal with Paramount Pictures, which is distributing Sonic.
In other words, high-profile creative minds brought Sonic the Hedgehog to a generously described form of life. And these are just the Western half of the equation. In Japan, the conglomerate Sega Sammy and their subsidiary Marza Animation Planet had been working on a Sonic film for years, originally alongside Sony Pictures. Moritz was involved with Sony when Sonic started, and he brought the crew with him over to Paramount a few years ago when the big switch was made. Sega, which has been an intellectual property licensing house for a long time, was probably just happy it was finally going to happen.
It’s been a long road for Sonic the Hedgehog to the silver screen, considering it’s a 30-year old intellectual property that hasn’t been relevant for two decades. A long, crazy, talent-sinking road that leads to nowhere.
Ben Schwartz (most recognizable as Jean-Ralphio Saperstein on Parks and Recreation) performed the motion-capture and voice work for the titular character, a blue, hyper-fast alien hedgehog who has found himself stranded on Earth and pursued by the cruel Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey). Schwartz takes the same approach to Sonic as Ryan Reynolds did with Pokémon: Detective Pikachu last year — by making the famous video-game character helplessly annoying for most of the movie. Presumably, it’s not really Schwartz’s fault that his dialogue sucks, but boy does it.
Given the internet hubbub about Sonic’s physical appearance when the initial teaser trailer premiered almost a year ago, Sonic the Hedgehog has built up a Cats–like hype for audiences excited to watch a train wreck. His eyes are larger now and his overall profile more aligned with the video game. He’s less terrifying. Unfortunately, the movie probably would’ve been more fun had it featured a slightly too-human take on the character. Without that visual horror, all it has is a “Well, I guess I’m here” performance by James Marsden (as Sonic’s human pal) and a parade of terrible one-liners that already feel outdated. Is Keanu still the internet’s boyfriend? I thought we were over that already.
Carrey delivers precisely what he was paid to do with Robotnik, which is to say playing a version of his ’90s schtick with slightly less physical fluidity. Presumably the goal was to make Sonic feel like a film pulled straight from Carrey’s heyday in the 1990s. It’s not that he’s ineffective; the biggest laughs in the preview screening came from viewers familiar with Carrey’s old work and happy to see him “doing his thing.” But given Carrey’s more worthwhile artistic pursuits since then, it feels a little bit sad.
Most of the laughs arrive early and don’t stick around for the rest of the movie. Like Pikachu before it, Sonic takes itself far too seriously. As the story drags on, the gags become less creative and more scatological, and the action ceases to feel imaginative. Why not set this story in the briefly glimpsed world of the video game? Eschew logic. Embrace absurdity. It may be a pariah among those who love Nintendo’s Mario Brothers, but at least the Super Mario Bros. movie was so odd and off-center that it became legendary. Nobody in the world takes Sonic lore seriously; there’s no reason for the film to do so.
Instead, Sonic the Hedgehog joins an endless stream of attempted IP resurrections destined to litter the bottom of the box office, forgotten until their inevitable reboot or re-quel. The level of talent attached is never a match for the power of the giant corporations who want to take a shot at cinema roulette by placing all their chips on nostalgia. Someone somewhere is clamoring for a Sonic the Hedgehog movie, but there probably aren’t enough someones in somewheres to make it remotely profitable. Still, the process marches on, as artists collect paychecks and do the best work they can to bring zombie cultural icons to life for two brief hours.