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Sonic the Hedgehog Movie Review

Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) movie poster Sonic the Hedgehog

Theatrical Release: February 14, 2020 / Running Time: 99 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Jeff Fowler / Writers: Patrick Casey, Josh Miller (screenplay); Yuji Naka, Naoto Ohshima, Hirokazu Yasuhara (characters)

Cast: Ben Schwartz (voice of Sonic), James Marsden (Tom Wachowski), Jim Carrey (Dr. Ivo Robotnik), Tika Sumpter (Maddie Wachowski), Natasha Rothwell (Rachel), Adam Pally (Wade), Lee Majdoub (Agent Stone), Neal McDonough (Major Bennington), Tom Butler (Vice Chairman Walters), Frank C. Turner (Crazy Carl), Melody Niemann (JoJo)


If you're into video games, odds are you know who Sonic the Hedgehog is. With over 44 million units sold, the original 1991 game was by far Sega's all-time top-selling title. Sequels and spin-offs account for nine of the manufacturer's next ten highest-selling games, from classics like Sonic 2 and Sonic 3 & Knuckles to Mario and Sonic's more recent Olympic adventures.
Sonic is as iconic as any Sega creation and although the Japanese developer peaked in popularity in the 1990s as a 16-bit pioneer, both the company and its fast blue hedgehog have endured as the video game industry has evolved and the market for nostalgia has boomed.

Sonic was one of the first video game properties to successfully transition into other media. Two animated television series were quickly produced back in the early '90s, one for first-run syndication and the other for Saturday mornings on ABC. In the decades since, France and Japan have created additional TV series. And there were over 100 episodes produced in two seasons of the American-French co-production "Sonic Boom", which aired on Cartoon Network and Boomerang here a few years ago.

None of these shows has made a huge impact on pop culture, but the cumulative effect is that Sonic is still kind of a big deal. These days, all big deals get a movie sooner or later. Paramount's Sonic the Hedgehog opts for later, arriving almost thirty years after the 1990s film adaptations Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter. You can claim that they were waiting for effects technology to improve or demand to build, but neither of those seems particularly credible given when and how this movie arrives and the reception it is likely to be given.

Long story short, movies have become all about brands. Disney churned out seven billion-dollar blockbusters last year and they were all sequels, remakes, or part of a certain behemothic cinematic universe. Everyone else in Hollywood is struggling to keep up with that type of drawing power, but the problem is they don't have beloved classic films they can just remake with photorealistic animation. They don't have Marvel or Pixar or Star Wars. Sony hit the billion dollar mark on Spider-Man: Far from Home, but had to split the proceeds with Disney as part of playing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe sandbox. Warner and DC went a different route completely with Todd Phillips' dark, Scorsesian, R-rated Joker and that grossed a billion worldwide on a very modest budget. But that kind of success isn't calculated or easily duplicated. We'll surely see more R-rated comic book fare, but as the underperforming Birds of Prey demonstrates, that's not a reliable business model.

Sonic the Hedgehog (voiced by Ben Schwartz) and Montana sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) hit the road in the 2020 family comedy "Sonic the Hedgehog."

Unfortunately, the model that Sonic the Hedgehog is built upon is not reliable either, nor is it fresh or inspired. Patrick Casey and Josh Miller, the screenwriting duo of low-to-no budget fare as Dorm Daze and Sledgehammers at Dawn, have written a script that could easily be substituted for some other nostalgia-inducing familiar property. Pikachu. Scooby-Doo. Heck, even the Easter Bunny.

In fact, the production has managed to secure the human lead of Hop, Illumination's largely forgotten 2011 mixed-medium Easter Bunny family comedy, to hold similar duties here. James Marsden plays Tom Wachowski, a police officer in rural Montana. From a distance, Sonic the hedgehog has been watching Tom and his wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter), who like 0.6% of Montana's population is African-American. Sonic (computer-animated and voiced unremarkably by Ben Schwartz, the popular recurring Jean-Ralphio of "Parks & Rec") used to live in a paradise setting reminiscent of his video game worlds, but for a while now he's been sneaking about in Montana, going unnoticed by all but the town kook Crazy Carl.

Tom has just applied and been accepted for a transfer to San Francisco. But before the couple can move, he discovers Sonic and becomes the ally the speedy blue alien needs when the government contracts Dr. Ivo Robotnik to help track down Sonic, who it's determined is responsible for some recent power outages. In casting seemingly meant to make up for the '90s nostalgia this otherwise lacks, Robotnik is played by Jim Carrey, returning to the broad and silly antics of his breakout decade. Maybe you liked Carrey hamming it up in The Mask and talking out of his butt as Ace Ventura in the '90s. I know the adolescent me did. There's a lot less to enjoy in Carrey's new villain, who forgoes the video games' bald, cartoonish Robotnik design in favor of just a thick mustache and an ordinary hairdo.

Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) sniffs a lost and found quill from his foil alongside his thankless assistant Agent Stone (Lee Majdoub).

Now 46, Marsden has somehow managed not to age at all. He's still the handsome hero who broke out in X-Men and brightened the 2007 musicals Enchanted and Hairspray. At 58, Carrey isn't as lucky and all those rubber-faced antics show in his weathered appearance.
Looks shouldn't matter, not in comedy, the genre that has produced more overweight movie stars than all the others put together. But they kind of do because the aged Carrey, who rightfully takes second billing, gives both his performance and the entire film an air of untimely desperation. This movie screams Noughties and not in a good way, fitting somewhere in between Garfield, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Marsden's Hop.

Last year's Detective Pikachu may not have shattered box office records or rocked worlds, but at least it had enough sense not to subject us to this kind of formulaic, run-of-the-mill buddy road comedy, where of course there's a stop at rodeo-themed biker bar and of course a brawl breaks out. At least that generic detour lets Sonic ape the recent X-Men movies' Quicksilver scenes and shows us how time moves slowly when you move as fast as Sonic. The video games were fun not because of any complexity or themes but just because it can be fun to roll quickly through scenes, collecting rings and recovering them when you hit something that makes them all fall out. In this movie, rings exist as a kind of magical portal. It's possible that's a concept that has been brought up in the past twenty-five years of Sonic entertainment (my knowledge of the franchise largely begins and ends with Sonic 2), but it feels generic and unimaginative while also being underdeveloped.

Sonic, which scrambled to rework its fleet-footed hero's design after the first trailer prompted viral levels of scorn and was delayed three months as a result, has little regard for the universe it's adapting and little regard for meeting a definition of cinema far more lenient than Martin Scorsese's. In his feature debut, director/executive producer Jeff Fowler (whose biggest previous credits were writing and directing the Oscar-nominated 2004 animated short Gopher Broke and doing animation research and development for Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are), does nothing to make you believe he deserved the job or has anything to show you that you haven't already seen.

Whether or not you know and love the games, this is a limp and eminently forgettable diversion. The few chuckles it earns, mild and scattered as they are, are offset by some of the most egregious product placement we've seen in a film in years. Sonic hits hard for Olive Garden and soft but even more clunkily for Zillow. To get away with that, it needs to be a much better movie than it is. They may have improved Sonic's design based on Twitter hate, but the flaws of this cookie cutter fluff are much deeper and less easily fixed.

Related Reviews:
James Marsden: Hop • Enchanted • Robot & Frank • Accidental Love • X-Men: Days of Future Past
Jim Carrey: Mr. Popper's Penguins • Yes Man • The Incredible Burt Wonderstone • A Christmas Carol (2009)
Pokιmon: Detective Pikachu • The Smurfs • Alvin and the Chipmunks • Pixels • Wreck-It Ralph • Bedtime Stories
Now in Theaters: Dolittle

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Reviewed February 18, 2020.

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