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“Sonic the Hedgehog” Film Review

One of 2019’s welcome surprises was “Detective Pikachu.” Based on Nintendo’s popular video game series, the plucky Pokémon caper, starring Ryan Reynolds as a sleuthing, talking electric mouse, put Nintendo’s first big-budget, live-action/CGI hybrid on the screen. Using “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” as a Trojan horse, it also tested the waters to see if general audiences would gravitate towards a strange world where not only do six-foot-tall turtles shoot water out of shoulder cannons, but 11-year-olds are also encouraged to capture, raise and battle them in nationally sanctioned dogfights.

Grossing $433 million on a $150 million budget, it’s safe to say that test paid off.

I imagine a similar plan is in use for “Sonic the Hedgehog,” the new video game movie opening nationwide this week, starring Ben Schwartz (“Parks and Recreation”) as SEGA’s blue, super-speedy scamp and directed by Jeff Fowler. Borrowing from familiar fish-out-of-water tales like “E.T.” and “Thor,” the movie eases non-gamers into Sonic’s chaotic fantasy world while faithfully adapting his mischievous, fun-loving spirit.

THE STORY

Baby Sonic lives on another planet: a lush, verdant island chock full of loop-de-loops and crumbling pathways, which serves as the perfect racetrack for any growing speedster. Unfortunately, Sonic is hunted by a mysterious troop of assailants, so using a magic ring as an interdimensional portal, he escapes to Green Hills, Montana — a considerably slower-paced town.

Years later, the now-teenage Sonic quickly adjusts to life on Earth, becoming enamored with the town and everyone in it, especially the sheriff, Tom (James Marsden). If only Sonic would work up the nerve to reveal himself to anyone. Sure, being able to play baseball with himself in every position is fun, but not being able to high-five a friend after a win is a bummer. What else is there to do but sprint around the diamond in frustration?

Have you ever rubbed your feet on the carpet fast enough that you could jolt someone with your finger? Imagine being a supersonic furball running away from your loneliness. Sonic accidentally unleashes an electric surge that causes a blackout on the entire Western seaboard. Naturally, the military gets involved. They enlist Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey), a brilliant, egomaniacal scientist, to find out what caused the surge. Let’s just say that when it comes to alien life, Robotnik is more of a dissector than a befriender.

Sonic ducks into Tom’s garage to hide from Robotnik’s drones, but when Tom discovers him, Sonic begs the man for help. Never one to turn down someone in need, Tom helps Sonic out, and the two embark on a road trip to get Sonic to safety, i.e., off the planet.

Sonic the Hedgehog
Photo courtesy of Paramount

If you’re a fan of the Genesis game, you’re probably thinking “Earth? James Marsden? Where are the animals that need to be freed?” Believe me, I sympathize. 

It’s strange that almost a decade after “Thor,” studios still feel the need to dip their toes before diving into the sci-fi/fantasy pool. In a pre-”Avengers” world, I see the merit of using a fish-out-of-water structure to introduce a Norse god into a universe otherwise heavy on technology. 

However, it’s 2020. Taika Waititi already gave Thor an ‘80s acid bath. James Gunn made a household icon out of a sentient tree with a vocabulary of four words…twice. Comic book movies have proved, dozens of times over, that ‘geek’ is chic, nerds will pay and they’re ready to play. Hollywood doesn’t need to continue watering down the video game movie. It can embrace the talking animals and power-ups because its fans have embraced them, in Sonic’s case, for almost 30 years.

Thankfully, what keeps “Sonic the Hedgehog” far away from the disastrous fare of 1993’s “Super Mario Bros.” is that it gets the essentials — Sonic, his speed and Dr. Robotnik — 100% right. In this case, “Genesis does what Nintendon’t.”

THE GOOD

Sonic the Hedgehog
Photo credit: Doane Gregory/Paramount Pictures

Ben Schwartz is pitch-perfect as Sonic, both sweet and spastic. Hundreds of words spill out of Sonic’s mouth every minute. Couple that with a microscopic attention span and you’d think he’d be a pest, but Schwartz is equally authentic in the lonelier, more tender sides of Sonic’s personality. I start to build this portrait of a hedgehog who struggles between fully embracing his gifts and holding himself back to find his place in the community he admires from afar. Sonic is happiest when sharing moments with Tom, but that means sacrificing some speed. Tom can’t keep up with Sonic; he can’t have a week’s worth of fun in less than a minute. To make that connection and be truly happy, Sonic has to give up a little piece of what makes him special. That constant restriction is bittersweet.

For as many tricks come from the playbooks of movies like “X-Men: Days of Future Past” or “The Incredibles,” this movie also adopts the games’ action, from the 16-bit era to the newer 3-D installments, to screen. Mario and Sonic both jump on their enemies, but Sonic’s jump is floatier. When both start from a static position, Mario’s attack looks to have more impact. The movie echoes this idea, making Sonic’s punches have the same power as an expensive massage chair. Sonic’s strength is in chaining momentum, cycling it to create continuous acceleration and damage. When he’s got the opportunity to ramp up distance and damage, that’s when he succeeds. Seeing these concepts translated to screen reveals director Jeff Fowler (making his feature debut) and crew understand what truly makes Sonic tick, what makes him unique.

If Sonic is the Roadrunner, Dr. Robotnik is Wile E. Coyote. Who else are you going to get to play a living Looney Tune but Jim Carrey? It’s a treat to see him back in purely zany territory. It may be 25 years since “The Mask” and “Batman Forever” but he’s truly not missed a single step. Other actors would be hindered by a comically large mustache; Carrey shines through it tenfold.

I think fondly of the supporting cast as well. Marsden uses his trademark All-American chin-and-grin to likeable effect. Tika Sumpter, who plays Tom’s wife Maddie, brings some comedic chops that slightly elevates an otherwise basic role. Natasha Rothwell, playing Maddie’s sister, made my audience bust many a gut as she held back no disdain for Tom’s every move. Lee Majdoub, who plays Robotnik’s lackey, Agent Stone, is flat-out hilarious, filling the background with a wealth of goofy reactions as he seeks Robotnik’s approval (or at least some acknowledgement of his worth as a human being).

While the movie’s structure may temper any qualms about how we’re supposed to take a talking hedgehog seriously, the second edge of this sword stabs us with an abundance of pop-culture references, seemingly sourced through the Disney Channel Book of Dad Jokes and discarded Laffy Taffy wrappers. You better believe Sonic quotes “Speed” and “The Fast and the Furious.” Why would Sonic even care about Uber, let alone make jokes about it, if he can make a roundtrip run across the country in less than a minute? By the second time Sonic breaks out into Fortnite’s “floss dance,” I just shrug and accept it.

THE VFX

Sonic the Hedgehog
Photo Credit: Doane Gregory/Paramount Pictures

After fans reacted negatively to Sonic’s design in the first trailer, Paramount pushed the movie’s release from November of last year to this year in February to work out some of the VFX. I’m happy to say the redesign is successful. It more closely resembles the games: larger eyes and hands, shorter proportions and no terrifyingly realistic human teeth. 

Especially since MPC’s (Motion Picture Co.) VFX studio in Vancouver, which worked on this movie, “Cats,” and the “Lion King” remake, shut down in December, it becomes more important to praise and appreciate the hard work of many artists who spent tireless hours correcting executive mistakes. Surely, that’s a better sign of good faith than orchestrating an insulting segment at the 2020 Oscars ceremony.

While “Sonic the Hedgehog” embraces some past trends that should be forgotten, it gets the spirit of the character correct. This movie won’t win over the die-hards, but it’s a step in the right direction. Given what’s in the two scenes after the movie’s end, it’s safe to say, with the right support, more of those steps are in this hedgehog’s future.

“Sonic the Hedgehog hits theaters on Valentine’s Day! Get your tickets here.

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