Confession: Growing up in the 1990s, I played my share of video games, but I never played Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog. The most I knew about the lightning-fast, spiky-haired creature going into the live-action “Sonic the Hedgehog” was the uproar caused by his character design in the movie’s trailer released last spring. The hedgehog looked all kinds of wrong, Sonic fans cried out. They claimed the popular character veered too far away from his video game visage.
The “Sonic” filmmakers took the criticism to heart and retooled the film to appease its audience base, pushing the film back months from its original November release date. It’s a risky move, but one that pays off.
“Sonic the Hedgehog” is adorable and delightful, with a lovable main character who races into moviegoers’ hearts. In a wholesome but mostly standard family outing, “Sonic” succeeds as both a video game film and a kids’ film as it brings its wide-eyed hedgehog to life, surrounding him with a likable human cast.
When we meet Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz), the alien has been hiding out on Earth for 10 years, keeping his supersonic speed on the downlow. Lamenting his lack of friends, the lonely hedgehog inadvertently causes a power outage. This catches the attention of the government – and evil scientist Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey), who vows to hunt down the source of the outage.
Trying to evade capture, Sonic goes on the run with kind, small-town Sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), who is planning to leave his job and join the San Francisco Police Department. Sonic must find his famed rings, which the hedgehog can use to escape Earth, the only home he’s ever known. As the two embark on a road trip, they form a life-changing bond.
It’s easy for audiences to root for Sonic right off the bat because of how cute he is. This is due to the animators’ willingness to soften the character’s features after fan outcry. In the film, Sonic looks more like his videogame counterpart, with expressive eyes and less-pronounced teeth. As a result, the spiky groundhog can show more emotion, and audiences feel for him. Schwartz does a good job of voicing the alien outcast, from cracking jokes to conveying his longing to belong.
In nods to the video game character’s super speed, the film features creative action sequences. In one scene at a bar, time slows down to show how fast Sonic can go. The character playfully rearranges beer bottles as he races around brawling customers. The exciting third-act climax also hinges on Sonic’s abilities, from the hedgehog speeding down a building to engaging in a portal-hopping face-off. Even though I didn’t play the video game, the entertaining sequences showed me just what I needed to know about Sonic’s powers without feeling lost.
The heart of “Sonic the Hedgehog” lies in the friendship between Tom and its titular character. Their friendship needs to be believable for the film to work, and thanks to Marsden’s earnest acting, it does. Tom is not only a good lawman, but a good husband to his wife, Maddie (a lovely Tika Sumpter). Marsden’s sweetness and warmth shines through as Tom takes Sonic under his wing. After starring in 2011’s “Hop” with an animated Easter Bunny, the actor is developing a strong reputation for being able to act alongside CGI characters, much like Mark Wahlberg in the “Transformers” and “Ted” franchises.
The film also boasts a great villain in Dr. Robotnik. Carrey lets loose as the mustachioed, manic Robotnik in a gleefully over-the-top performance. It’s wonderful to see the rubber-faced comedian return to form after his heyday in the 1990s flicks “Ace Venture: Pet Detective” and “The Mask,” the latter a favorite of mine. But Carrey faces some competition for laughs from a hilarious Natasha Rothwell, who plays Tom’s doubting sister-in-law.
As a family-friendly flick, “Sonic the Hedgehog” tackles common themes often seen in children’s films, but it does so with care. The well-paced movie explores the meaning of friendship and figuring out where you belong, with good humor and puns along the way. Parents can take their kids to a thoughtful film that will not only entertain them but teach them life lessons.
With its simple plot, “Sonic the Hedgehog” asks its audience to take leaps in logic. Sonic could race to find his rings using Google Maps, but then we wouldn’t have a road trip movie. When Sonic and Tom go on the run, the sheriff is labeled a domestic terrorist, but the movie casts this aside like no big deal.
The flick also doubles down on obnoxious product placement. Do you like Olive Garden? If you do, you may find yourself speeding over there after the egregious number of times the restaurant is mentioned in the film.
A better-looking Sonic results in a better film in “Sonic the Hedgehog.” The audience was right to demand a makeover for its video game hero, and the filmmakers were smart to deliver. With a winning cast and heartfelt story, “Sonic” is an enjoyable time at the movies for audiences of all ages.
Last year, fans saw the first trailer and pronounced “Sonic the Hedgehog” dead on arrival. The horrid Sonic character design turned moviegoers off to the film months before it was originally supposed to hit theaters. The studio heard the backlash and actually decided to fix it. It got to work and pushed the film’s release date back to February 2020.
I usually disagree with the idea of a test audience or fan interference before a movie comes out. The DC Extended Universe, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “I Am Legend” are just a few examples that support my theory. Test audiences contributed to turning good endings of two pretty darn good films into bad endings with “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “I Am Legend.” Fan backlash almost destroyed the DC Extended Universe, which has been showing signs of life lately.
However, “Sonic the Hedgehog” needed this change. It paid huge dividends. Sonic looks much more like Sonic now as opposed to making him look more human. The eyes were most important to get right because of the emotional scenes. Sonic is lonely for a lot of the film because he is told to stay hidden from society. In order for the audience to feel his pain, it needs to see it in his eyes. Through the improved animation, he is able to emote much better. It really improves the emotional beats.
Ben Schwartz does a nice job as the voice of Sonic. I’m not the biggest Sonic expert, but I have played the game. Also, I played as his character in Super Smash Brothers, rather ineffectively I might add, but I digress. The point is, Schwartz embodies Sonic for the little that I know about him.
Jim Carrey returns to his roots of just having fun with a role. He fits in perfectly as the film’s villain Dr. Robotnik, aka Dr. Eggman. He’s over the top as the character should be and it would be interesting to see him return for a sequel. Carrey would thrive with the character’s further descent into madness.
James Marsden has had an up-and-down career and a movie on his résumé where he also acted alongside an animated character. However, 2011’s “Hop” was much worse than “Sonic the Hedgehog.” Oddly enough, it’s apparent that he has the experience as he gels beautifully with Sonic. He also embraced the fact that he’s in a kids movie. That makes his character much more lovable because he’s not just going through the motions.
Same goes for Tika Sumpter, whose chemistry with Marsden allows the audience to root for them. Every scene the on-screen couple has makes moviegoers smile.
Natasha Rothwell, who plays Sumpter’s sister, made me laugh a few times and that’s more so a credit to her performance. The dialogue was fine, but her delivery put it over the top.
A few plot elements are a little ridiculous. Marsden quickly agrees to help Sonic escape the law after Sonic guilts him into it. It would be more believable if Marsden was not a cop who just earned a position with the San Francisco police department. There is also a scene where Sonic goes into a bar “in disguise” with a pair of sunglasses, a cowboy hat and a coat and that was enough to convince people he was a human being.
But the absurd product placement stuck out the most. Olive Garden quite possibly funded the film with its two hilarious plugs. There is one point Marsden and Sumpter say the slogan, “When you’re here, you’re family.” Later in the film, someone says, “Have you ever had their never-ending pasta bowl? It never ends!”
It was almost as absurd as Mark Wahlberg crashing an alien aircraft into a bud light truck, having the camera pan over all the bud light bottles and then making Wahlberg pick one up, pop the cap and take a swig before casting it aside in “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” … Almost.
That doesn’t change what “Sonic the Hedgehog” is, and that’s an adorable kids movie with likable actors and an animated character the audience can connect with. It’s far from perfect, but considering the backlash this movie received after the first trailer this has to go down as an absolute win.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Rebecca Kivak and Joe Baress write about movies for Take 2 blog. Together, they review current flicks and offer their insights into the latest movie news. Rebecca is a copy editor and page designer at The Times-Tribune. She started her career with Times-Shamrock Newspapers in 2005 and has won several professional journalism awards for page design and headline writing. She also covers NASCAR races from Pocono Raceway. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5126; @TTRebeccaKivak