This might seem obvious, but movies really have to be about something. This has often been the hurdle which has caused many video game movies to faceplant. Think back to the terrible Hitman films – they’re about nothing. Neither is the Hitman game franchise, but the difference is genius sandbox levels and intricate play systems help to mask the fact that 47 is, by design, a blank character. Attempts to give him something to care about have always been unsuccessful.
Or consider, then, 2018’s Tomb Raider. A film that is actually thematically about something – Lara Croft overcoming the loss of her father and picking up his legacy, a pretty typical cinematic hero’s journey. But the problem is that this theme and her rise isn’t really earned, which sours the rest of the movie. The film’s producers found a great new Lara Croft, but they never found the heart of the film to justify her action-packed existence.
If Sonic the Hedgehog gets anything right, it’s that like last year’s Detective Pikachu it’s a relatively simple story of cinema tropes and staples, well told. Detective Pikachu was about reconciliation of a father and son, while Sonic is about a lonely young child finding friends and family. It’s respectful and smart about how it uses the Sonic property, but this would be a perfectly serviceable story if all that were stripped away. On this level, it absolutely works.
Sonic is by no means a cinematic masterpiece, but nor does it need to be. It’s a solid little kids film that hits all the right notes. It’s funny in places, goofy in places, heartfelt more often than you’d think, and of course contains a few of the requisite action set-pieces to get the blood pumping. It is perfectly competent, relatively safe and by-the-numbers, but most important is it’s fun.
I saw the Sonic film in a room that pretty much captured its demographic perfectly. There were huge groups of kids accompanied by parents. There were a few couples or groups of young adults – the childless who nevertheless are of a particular age to whom Sega’s hedgehog will carry a particular significance. It got laughs from the kids and grins of glee from older fans at deep-cut references. A few rows in front of me one over-excited lad was breathlessly predicting what would happen next, whispering it to his mother, wide-eyed. You see? It works.
From the perspective of the video game literate, especially those old enough to remember the Mega Drive, the film is curious. When Sonic was designed in Japan, he was a happy-go-lucky young kid. For the western release he was made cooler and also a little crueler – redrawn for the American box art with sharper-looking spikes, a more furrowed brow and a cutting smirk. This fit the marketing of the time that painted Nintendo as the soft, family-safe option and Sega as the bad-ass game maker for cool kids. As Sonic took off in the west, the American version would generally become the standard version of Sonic over the years, but the version in the film is far closer to the original Japanese intent behind the character.
As I said, it’s a film about a small child trying to find friends and family. He sort of finds both in Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), a sheriff in a small town called Green Hills. After a brief flashback of Sonic on his home planet with gorgeous game-accurate checkerboard hills and Sega-blue skies, we find Sonic in hiding on Earth, having fled his home planet after being targeted because of his super-speed powers. Tom ends up Sonic’s only ally when the same happens on earth, with the US government setting the insane-yet-genius scientist Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey) on his tail.
What’s quite surprising is how Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) is given time to breathe as a legitimate character. The first twenty minutes or so are him on his own, exuberant and excitable as a pre-teen child should be, but also constantly at odds with and upset by his loneliness. Sonic plays baseball with himself, using his super speed to fill out every role on the field, and he’s ecstatic – but then he turns to the empty stands in search of cheers and his little heart breaks. Astonishingly, given the Sonic design had to be reworked after a disastrous first attempt as shown in the original trailer, these moments work; Schwartz puts in an excellent performance and the CG mannequin is effectively emotional, and when he has to interact with the CG creature Marsden does admirably.
Carrey, too, is excellent. Marrying one nineties icon to another only makes sense, one supposes, but he’s clearly having a blast as Robotnik. Both Robotnik and Sonic start with elements of their characters as we know them intact, but also gradually piece together other missing elements. Eventually, Sonic gets his iconic red sneakers and as grows into the confident, snarky attitude he’s known for. Robotnik, too, eventually swaps a slick bad-guy long coat for a ‘flight suit’ that more closely resembles the sort of look the recent 3D version of the character has worn as he continues a rapid slide into true madness.
All of this works as an origin story for the pair, and it has a great deal of heart – something that, as mentioned, so many other video game movies lack. Like Detective Pikachu, however, the film struggles in other, surprising places. Sonic’s super speed is used to great effect for jokes, but when the time comes for an action scene, there’s nothing particularly new or exciting here. We’ve seen so many super-powered speedsters like X-Men’s Quicksilver that the scenes where Sonic’s speed is represented by him zipping around a seemingly-paused world don’t have the impact they were clearly intended to.
There’s also a missed opportunity to present Sonic’s surprisingly rich world as depicted in the games, but in the context of the story the writers of this movie chose to tell you can absolutely see why Sonic on earth was the best option – and the writers had the good sense to drop in a couple of sequel-hooks that could easily lead to exploring a more game-like take on Sonic in a future movie.
Sonic is a family-friendly action movie with some solid comedy. Some are going to deride it for being too simple, for being overly by-the-book, but it is a film for eight-year-olds. It’s great at that, much like Detective Pikachu. If you take your kids, they’ll love it. If you’re a fan of Sonic, you’ll likely love it for the little details; it does the franchise proud and for my money is the best adaptation of the source material bar the Looney Tunes style 90’s cartoon Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog. It could’ve used some more energy in its action sequences and a little more creative, flair, though.
It is ultimately a video game movie that has a heart, and with that heart comes a quality that bucks the trend and actually results in a video game movie you might want to watch a second time. We’re yet to have our first truly classic video game movie adaptation, but that’s two solid ones a row now. Is the curse broken?