The world needed a hero. It got a hedgehog.

Let’s be real. Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) is a classic example of what the late Roger Ebert called a ‘wunza’ movie: a buddy-cop action-adventure flick with a mismatched odd-couple pair of male leads who are flung together and bond over a high-stakes high-speed quest to save the day. Now, when you’re adapting for the big screen what’s essentially the Sega Genesis’s attempt to outdo Mario with its updated graphics abilities in a platformer without dialogue and a rather minimal plot-line, this is a choice that makes about as much sense as any. So, plot-wise, Sonic is a rehashed Rush Hour or Lethal Weapon. The problem is: how can you possibly get Tom Wachowski, a small-town sheriff with a penchant for making way for ducklings and conversing with his morning snacks in his patrol car (played by James Marsden of X-Men and Westworld fame), to bond meaningfully with everyone’s favourite endearingly eminent express-paced Everton-hued eulipotyph?

It’s something of a tall order. Sonic the Hedgehog is a sprite with attitude, but that attitude doesn’t necessarily translate well to a well-rounded character in a film—or any other medium with a plot, really. If you make a lead as arrogant, impatient, thrill-seeking and cocksure as he appears in the video games and as he is described in the accompanying liner-literature, he’s going to come off looking and sounding like a jerk. And so each time ‘Nic is imported to a medium which requires his engagement in a storyline—whether that’s the Archie comics, the old-school Saturday morning DiC cartoons, or the Japanese OVAs—he has to be adapted in order to make him appealing. This (mostly) live-action film is no exception to that rule.

So the Sonic that we see rendered here, voiced by Parks & Rec’s Ben Schwartz, is shown to be suffering from the effects of an orphan adolescence. Even though he still has a towering ‘tude which seemingly owes a lot to Kuzco from The Emperor’s New Groove (complete with irreverent fourth-wall-humping in medias res voiceover narration), a lot of that bravado stems from the fact that he’s lived his life so far on the run, fleeing the pursuit of the hostile Echidna tribe from planet to planet using his golden rings (which are essentially spacetime-bending portable wormholes that read the thoughts of the person who flings them in order to find an exit), and being unable to really settle down or develop friendships anywhere as a result. Despite this, Sonic develops a strong attachment to Earth as his foster-home, particularly its pop culture and pastimes… and ends up living vicariously through his surreptitious surveillance and entirely one-sided relationships (with the partial exception of local conspiracy-theorist / survivalist ‘Crazy’ Carl) with the inhabitants of Green Hills, Montana. Sonic, who possesses both super speed and loads of free time, begins to question whether or not this entire existence is a healthy one (even to the point of affecting an Austrian accent and subjecting himself to psychoanalysis on the proverbial couch), and comes to the conclusion that he is desperately lonely.

Warning: spoilers to follow

One night, Sonic has something of an emotional breakdown while playing an entire game of baseball by himself, and knocks out the entire power grid of western Montana as a result. This attracts the attention of the US government, which sends in to investigate a certain robotics specialist with five doctorates and a rather bad attitude toward working with people—a certain Dr Robotnik, portrayed exquisitely by The Truman Show’s Jim Carrey. Robotnik is retconned as a specialist in ‘revolutionary’ drone tech, who despite the misgivings of the government nonetheless possesses a high security clearance and an entire private army of drones, as well as an obsequious adjutant named Agent Stone (Lee Majdoub) who serves basically as his Snivelly and Cluck (Robotnik’s hapless, frequently-abused sidekicks in the DiC cartoons) in the film.

Sonic, who quickly cottons onto the fact that he’s being pursued, makes a reluctant and half-hearted attempt to leave Earth behind using his rings, but he is effectively stopped by Sheriff Tom and his veterinarian wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter)’s tranq-gun, and loses all his rings when his portal goes wrong and drops them on top of the Transamerica building in San Francisco (where Tom is second-round interviewing for a job with the SFPD). Robotnik tracks Sonic to the Wachowskis’ house, and gets into a physical altercation with Tom, sparking off a cross-state road chase across the American West to retrieve Sonic’s rings before Sonic gets captured and dissected by the Feds.

End spoilers.

The plotline is thus fairly straightforward and predictable—much like the platformer that the movie is based on. As a ‘wunza’ flick, relying on the chemistry between the live-action Tom and his animated counterpart, it tends to struggle… though not from any lack of effort by Marsden and Schwartz. It often feels like Tom has to suspend disbelief a little too much and a little too often in order to form any kind of emotional attachment to Sonic. The bar scene where the two of them try to bond over a ‘bucket list’—which in Sonic’s case consists of a list of all the things he wants to do before leaving Earth behind for another planet—is loads of fun in multiple ways, and displays both actors’ comic versatility (the quirky bullet-time bar fight set to the X Ambassadors’ ‘Boom’ is a definite highlight), but it lacks emotional depth. Honestly, there’s a lot more to be said about Tom and Maddie’s relationship, which is deep and endearing even in the midst of the power struggle between Robotnik and Sonic which they’re caught in the middle of, than about that between Tom and Sonic. Marsden and Sumpter have this natural on-screen chemistry—not even necessarily always romantic—that Marsden and Schwartz have to work at, and don’t always succeed in sparking.

What saves the film from falling into a kind of comfortable, forgettable mediocrity, is… Jim Carrey.

I’m not (to put it mildly) the world’s biggest Jim Carrey stan. I hated the Ace Ventura movies even as a kid, and the Dumb & Dumber franchise has never appealed to me in the slightest. The Truman Show was tolerable, as it showcased Carrey in a slightly more serious and emotionally-vulnerable role, but even within its dystopian near-futuristic SFnal genre I was never particularly impressed with it. But Carrey absolutely kills it as Dr Ivo J Robotnik. He steals every single scene he’s in, with a maliciously-volatile mix of slapstick, motor-mouthed insult comedy and genuine menace, and his gleefully-wicked solo dance scene (set to The Poppy Family’s ‘Where Evil Grows’) is a definite showstopper. He gives his character just enough backstory and emotional subtext to be believable (including hints at an orphan background to foil Sonic’s, and childhood bullying-victim anecdotes), which drives the over-the-top techno-fuelled power-hunger that makes Robotnik such a wonderful villain. I don’t think I’m overstating my case when I say that Carrey makes this movie work, and that it’s the banter-filled high-speed confrontations between Carrey’s Robotnik and Schwartz’s Sonic that keep the film interesting.

Going back to my point above about the need for Sonic’s character to be adapted to the filmic medium: although the Sonic the Hedgehog of the video games is kind of a loner-by-choice, the Sonic of this movie is someone who allows himself to get attached, and is a much stronger character for it. He cares deeply about the people of Green Hills even though Carl is the only one who knows he exists up until the point where Tom mistakes him for a raccoon and shoots him. Ironically, this actually provides a setup for one of the nice little wink-nods to the games. Sonic comes up with food-themed nicknames for people in Green Hills: Tom is ‘Donut Lord’ (obviously, small-town sheriff); Maddie is ‘Pretzel Lady’ (yoga enthusiast). Thus when Dr Robotnik shows up with his flotilla of sleek white ovoid drones, the nickname that Sonic comes up with for him is ‘Egg Man’ (which is his name in the Japanese version). But this character work helps in other ways: Sonic’s anger at Tom for wanting to leave Green Hills for San Francisco when Sonic has to leave Earth behind, could very easily and very badly fallen flat if these liberties hadn’t been taken with his portrayal.

But what makes Sonic sympathetic in this whole thing, is the fact that he’s willing to make himself vulnerable in a way that Robotnik is not: whether it’s to Tom and Maddie, or to Tom’s dog Ozzie, or to Tom’s niece Jojo (Melody Nosipho Niemann)—who gives Sonic his trademark red running shoes as a present to replace his worn-out, ill-fitting tennies. If Schwartz just portrayed him as a wisecracking cartoon animal who communicated in Keanu Reeves one-liner quotes and references to the Fast & Furious movies, the movie named for his character wouldn’t have half the appeal that it does. Product placement? Oh, yeah. And in a movie like this it’s unfortunately kind of inevitable. But mostly it’s done in a more or less tasteful way: for example, the Olive Garden gift card that the Feds give Tom at the end is basically played for a quick laugh.

My final verdict for Sonic the Hedgehog is that, yes, it’s a buddy-cop movie—but it’s a buddy-cop movie with a heart, and with enough quirk to its sense of humour (much of that heavy lifting being done by Carrey) to keep it from fading into forgetability. My review of last year’s Sonic the Hedgehog 2 will be forthcoming on this blog, but I will warn readers up front: I was not as impressed with the sequel as I was with this one.


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