It seems fair to say that Sonic the Hedgehog hasn’t had the smoothest run to cinemas, with the videogame-based adventure movie – which stars Ben Schwartz as its titular superfast hedgehog – originally slated for a 2019 release before widespread mockery of its central character’s design led to a complete do-over by the VFX team.
Now, a box-fresh new CGI Sonic (and presumably a lot of very tired VFX artists) later, the film has finally arrived. And despite all the drama in its past the finished article is an enjoyable, entertaining movie that’s sure to delight kids and amuse their parents. It’s not quite Detective Pikachu, but it’s fun enough.
The film opens in media res with Sonic (Schwartz) fleeing the clutches of evil scientist Dr Robotnik (Jim Carrey) before flashing back to his back story. To whit, in this retelling of the classic Sega games’ story Sonic grew up on a nice island with a close resemblance to early Sega Genesis levels, before being forced out by malevolent figures with an interest in his unique super-speed power.
Exiled to Earth thanks to a bag of magic rings (which create portals), Sonic ends up growing up in the shadows, creating imagined friendships with the people of small town Green Hills (another Easter Egg referring to the Green Hill Zone, the first level in the original Sonic game) and hanging out in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-style underground den.
Sonic’s loneliness is affectingly if simply told onscreen, and may strike a chord with younger viewers – however, it’s not long until his lonesome existence is ended when the US government takes an interest, sending Robotnik (played as a full Batman Forever-level gurning fiend from Carrey) after him and forcing Sonic to team up with a local cop (James Marsden’s Tom) to escape and use his rings to travel to a new home.
From this, the film turns into something of a road trip movie, complete with comedy setpieces – an extended bar fight turns into a riff on Evan Peters’ slo-mo Quicksilver scenes from the X-Men franchise – and roadblocks both emotional and literal as our heroes fall out, make up and dodge Robotnik’s imaginative drone weapons.
These action scenes are pleasingly explosive and (appropriately) fast-paced, thought I couldn’t help but wish they’d been slightly more imaginative with Sonic’s superspeed, an ability that’s turning up more and more often in superhero movies (X-Men, Justice League) and TV (The Flash) and risks becoming slightly over-saturated.
The bar fight is fun, sure, and Sonic talking to himself in various outfits raises a few laughs, but it’s nothing we’ve never seen before and I had hoped for some genuinely creative uses for his power.
By the end of the film I was entertained and the kids around me seemed to have enjoyed themselves – but as I left the cinema I was left with one nagging thought. Despite all the effort, heartache, long nights, missed birthday parties and damaged relationships that the VFX artists were presumably put through to completely redo the film a small part of me could now see why the original design for Sonic was the way it was – slightly disturbing, sure, but also more photorealistic.
In the finished film this new, cartoony Sonic might be more aesthetically pleasing, but he’s a bizarre outlier in an otherwise photorealistic world (unlike in the aforementioned Detective Pikachu, where there’s a mix of humans and CG Pokémon). Yes, everyone’s freaked out that he’s a blue hedgehog-alien, but nobody’s concerned by the fact that he doesn’t look like any kind of being anybody has ever seen, ever.
Maybe the rush to get the film to cinemas made something better but still not perfect, or maybe there was never a version of live-action Sonic that would work completely. For the filmmakers, it may be enough that they finally managed to cross the finish line.
Sonic the Hedgehog is in UK cinemas from Friday 14th February