Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sonic the Hedgehog (Film)

As we’ve mentioned previously on this blog, the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise has gone through its ups and downs, but still remained popular. This popularity led to a film deal that went through its own form of development hell for decades before finally landing on the version that just recently hit theaters. Following a disastrous initial trailer and a far superior second trailer, I remained cautiously optimistic going in, but now I can confidently say that the movie won me over in the end. Like Pokémon Detective Pikachu before it, Sonic the Hedgehog has broken the video game movie curse.

Sonic (Ben Schwartz) was born with the power of supersonic speed, which he has been forced to hide. When his life is in danger, he is forced to flee his world and live on a new one, Earth. Ten years later, he’s made a life for himself in Green Hills, Montana, where he idolizes the town sheriff, Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), from afar. In a bout of loneliness, Sonic accidentally creates an EMP that knocks out power across the Pacific Northwest. This catches the attention of Doctor Robotnik (Jim Carrey), who chases Sonic and Tom as they travel to San Francisco for rings that will help Sonic escape Earth.

Doctor Robotnik (Jim Carrey) hunts down Sonic to harness his powers.

Sonic the Hedgehog manages to strike a good balance between familiarity and accessibility. You don’t need to have prior knowledge of the franchise to get into it, but existing fans can still enjoy it due to its faithfulness to the characters and clever nods and references to different aspects of the property. The road trip framework, while perhaps cliché to some, serves the story well and opens up opportunities for character growth. Themes of loneliness and friendship also work their way in pretty naturally and the humor, both verbal and visual, is mostly on point, though the one fart joke could easily have been taken out. References also extend to the score, which includes a song borrowed from Sonic Mania and a reference to the iconic Green Hill Zone music from the Genesis games.

Eagle-eyed Transformers fans also noticed that the cab of Robotnik's truck is
the same as Galvatron's alt-mode from Age of Extinction.

What helps is the solid acting from the main characters. Jim Carrey’s portrayal of Robotnik works in favor of the movie, especially since he’s more restrained than usual in his delivery. James Marsden also provides a good performance and plays well off Ben Schwartz’s take on Sonic. While he doesn't follow Roger Craig Smith's traditionally snarky Sonic, Ben Schwartz still gives the character a great emotional range.

James Marsden (left) and Ben Schwartz (voice of Sonic, right)
play off each other well.

Naturally, CG plays an important role in making the film work. Sonic’s design is aesthetically pleasing and his interactions with the world feel believable, though I have to admit that at least one shot, where he is covered in seaweed and has a fish on his head, didn’t look as polished as it could have. The lightning and smoke effects also look great and the designs of Robotnik’s robots fit within the real world while still staying true to some of his design philosophies in other Sonic media. There are also a couple slow motion scenes, where Sonic moves so fast that everything else slows down around him, that are cool to look at and provide good opportunities for well-timed humor.

Going over the CG also brings to mind the well-known redesign that Sonic’s character went through. For those who are unaware, what happened is that the original trailer was very poorly received because of both the odd tone, with an out-of-place use of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”, and the nightmarishly humanoid take on Sonic’s design. The backlash was so immense that Paramount paid an additional $5 Million to fix Sonic’s appearance and delay the film for three months to allow enough time to alter the film accordingly. Once Paramount revealed the new design through the film’s second trailer, the overall reception dramatically improved, with praise extended to the lighter tone and humor.

The change in Sonic's appearance from something humanoid (left) to one
more game-accurate (right) dramatically improved reception to the film.

Sonic alum Tyson Hesse led the effort to redesign Sonic.

But the film’s development extends far beyond Paramount’s handling of the film. To elaborate on what I had written in the opening paragraph, development actually started in 1993 during production of Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog. To simplify the story, MGM struck a deal with Sega in 1994 and began work on their own treatment of the film, which would’ve prominently featured the Sega Saturn. During this part of development, MGM backed out due to creative differences and a failed attempt was made to revive the project through DreamWorks. Sony then picked up the project in 2013 and the story changed to resemble the one that eventually got released to theaters, but not before changing hands once more to Paramount in 2017 after Columbia Pictures put the film into a turnaround. Most of the production team during this transition remained unchanged.

In spite of the long development hell, however, Sonic the Hedgehog is surprisingly good and shows how far Hollywood has come with adapting video games to the big screen. The film knows how to appeal to old fans while not leaving general audiences out of the loop and the CG and humor are mostly on point. Then there’s the mid-credits scene, which has me excited about the possibility of a sequel. If you have any interest, don’t let this film pass you by.

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