“Sonic the Hedgehog” has not been what you would call a consistent franchise. Contrary to golden standard Mario, Sega’s flagship franchise spent its first couple entries as the edgy new guy until it missed a console generation, then proceeded to flounder for at least a decade, crossing into all sorts of genres and platforms before hitting several infamous nadirs. At this point, “Sonic” is as much a meme as it is an actual game franchise. Lately, it’s been on a bit of an upswing, but 30 years of fandom has seen a spiral into cringe before reversing into irony and back again. In other words, it’s been a long, long time since the series’ peak, long after it became a joke.
Which brings us to the movie. Last year, the Internet exploded when a preview of Sega’s iconic mascot in live action was released. It was, to put it lightly, horrifying. It was so deep into the uncanny valley that Paramount pushed back the release of the movie to redo the effects, bringing it closer to the game version (and, ironically, resulting in the very crunch that Sega had been trying to avoid). For a while, it looked like “Sonic the Hedgehog” would be a disaster on the level of the notoriously rushed 2006 version, which for some reason melded a JRPG plot onto the world of Sonic.
The resulting movie is not as bad as many feared. It’s not good, but it’s not as awful as one would expect a Sonic the Hedgehog live-action movie in the year 2020 to be.
The plot of “Sonic” is not that important. It starts off in the middle of a chase scene that then segues into Ben Schwartz giving a voiceover of the “that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation” variety. We see relatively cute baby Sonic running through the environments we recognize from the games. We learn he was raised by an owl named Longclaw, which is something the movie created, but I completely believed it was something that had happened in a Sonic game.
Sonic ends up on Earth, in the small town of Green Hills, Montana, where Sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) lives with his wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter). Sonic’s knowledge of our world is weirdly inconsistent. For example, he spies on the couple watching action movies, yet doesn’t seem to know that Marsden is a cop (referring to him as “Donut Lord”). He knows all about baseball, yet doesn’t know where San Francisco is. The script can’t seem to decide if he’s a child or not.
There’s also Jim Carrey’s Dr. Robotnik (doing Jim Carrey-like things), called to the scene after Sonic experiences an existential crisis that leads to the electric grid going down. In a series of shenanigans, Sonic and Marsden end up on the road, the latter branded a terrorist by the government. He does not seem bothered at all by this and neither does the movie. Eventually Sonic learns to not be less lonely. Then, he fights Eggman. Somewhere along the way, he floss dances.
Perhaps the biggest problem with “Sonic The Hedgehog” is its ambivalence. The script hints at a great well of millennial weirdness but never acknowledges it outside of a line or two. At times, it appears self-aware of the series’ history (the “sanic” meme makes an appearance), but it never really embraces it. The truth is, this movie is just not the weirdest thing Sega has done as a company. It was nowhere near as quirky as the Trance Vibrator for Rez nor as off-putting as Sonic kissing a human princess. Ben Schwartz is no Billy West or even Yuri Lowenthal no matter how much he tries. One wonders what Takashi Miike would do with this; he already has “Ace Attorney” and “Yakuza” under his belt.
Instead, we get a generic movie for kids that goes through the expected motions. Your enjoyment will depend on how much you like the ’90s-era Jim Carrey schtick and then how much you can tolerate bargain bin kids movie shenanigans. At least there are no toilet jokes.