Sonic the Hedgehog is an action comedy movie that debuted in the year 2020. It is perhaps most famous for the studio and creative team’s willingness to overhaul the design of the titular character’s CGI after it was universally panned upon the release of the first trailer for the film. Even so, it followed a long lineage of video game movies and no one expected much from it.
Which means those who chose to see it ended up quite pleasantly surprised.
Sonic is by no means a masterpiece of a film. However, it’s not trying to be a masterpiece. It’s trying to be a fun summer blockbuster movie. Something to encourage you to come in out of the heat to a nice, dark, air-conditioned theater for a couple of hours and spend outrageous sums of money on junk food. In a lot of ways, Sonic is a throwback film and benefits from it.
Remembering an earlier time
It makes a lot of sense for a movie about a ‘90s video game icon to evoke some of that nostalgia. The movie does this first with some excellent CGI that is there to help tell the story instead of just to overawe the audience as has been commonplace ever since James Cameron’s Avatar was released. The ‘90s were also the ideal era for the kind of film that would pair a cartoon with a live human as the protagonist pair - Who Framed Roger Rabbit? had only come out in 1988, after all, while Space Jam came out in 1996.
The movie also doesn’t feel the need to dig deep into lore and exposition to explain the events of the movie; another staple of ‘90s films before Lord of the Rings took everyone by storm. We find out Sonic’s backstory in about five minutes of a prologue. Everyone else is given simple, obvious motivations that are easy to understand and easy for the actors to play to. Tom Wachowski wants to prove to himself that he’s capable of helping others in dire need. Dr. Robotnik wants to prove he’s better and smarter than everyone else, including Sonic. Even Sonic’s motivation is simply to exist without being persecuted. We can understand these motivations and none of them require massive explanations or complex backstories.
Finally, the best thing about the movie is that it is tightly paced. Its run time is a mere 98 minutes. Like it’s namesake, the movie gets in and out as fast possible. The audience is never allowed to be bored and they aren’t required to sit still for any longer than necessary. Ever since the aforementioned Lord of the Rings and Marvel Cinematic Universe took over cinemas, movie lengths have gotten more and more bloated. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a long movie; however, if the movie doesn’t need to be longer it can do better if its kept shorter. Audiences appreciate it when you don’t waste their time.
There’s baseball in this movie!
One of the reason’s I chose to look back at this film this weekend was that I remembered it had some baseball early in the movie. Sonic is sad that he doesn’t have an friends after watching a little league championship game and decides to play baseball with himself. I don’t know about y’all, but that was something I always desperately wished I could do. Growing up I didn’t have many friends and what friends I had preferred football to baseball. Apparently, there was an incident when I was very young where I stated a very strong preference to hit to the point that I was unwilling to field and so my parents pulled me out of a t-ball league I was in and I didn’t join another baseball team until I was 16.
I think we also need to appreciate how the movie tips its cap to earlier baseball films such as The Natural, too. While Sonic is playing he becomes upset - which might be described as a kind of internal injury, much like the one suffered by Robert Redford’s character - and he rounds the bases, which causes an explosive display very similar to the one during the climax of the earlier film.
There’s plenty of heart, too
Another terrific move by the people behind the film was in how they made it friendly to both newcomers and die-hard Sonic fans alike. If you have no knowledge of Sonic other than his appearance and speed, this movie can still be quite enjoyable. However, it has pieces for the second group as well. The prologue includes a brief moment around one of the sunflowers that were pervasive in early levels of Sonic games. A large chunk of the movie is set in a town called Green Hills, named after the iconic first level of the first game Sonic starred in which has appeared in many other titles.
A lot of the sound effects in the film were taken directly from the video games, especially the ring sound effects. At several points careful listeners can note the use of some songs from the video games in the soundtrack; none of these is more obvious than during the epilogue of the film when a variation of the Green Hill theme plays under the dialog while the Wachowskis repaint their home. There are certainly other easter eggs that I missed because I am far from a Sonic aficionado.
The movie is, as noted earlier, far from perfect. Some Sonic fans take issue with Jim Carrey’s portrayal of Dr. Robotnik - he shares none of the known mannerisms or iconic physical features of the long-time Sonic villain. The movie also overdoes it on product placement at times - the movie comes to a near stop on two separate occasions to make sure that the audience notices when they namedrop a certain chain restaurant. Tom’s truck has its logo proudly shown as he and Sonic simultaneously flee and do battle with multiple evil robots and he makes sure to tell everyone later that the truck could still run despite the beating it took. And, indeed, we are left to assume that he did drive it for many miles from the site of the conflict until he reached his sister-in-law’s home in San Francisco.
Still, it’s hard to begrudge the movie these things when it might not exist without them. And the movie’s existence is a thing to be celebrated. Sonic the Hedgehog is a fun, simple movie that came out during one of the more complex periods in our recent history. It’s not its fault that people could not flood movie theaters to view it when it came out at the height of a worldwide pandemic. Even despite its struggles, it managed to make a decent profit at the box office and justified the creation of a sequel with - if we’re lucky - more to come.
The verdict is in: Sonic the Hedgehog holds up.