When you’re young, you latch yourself to whatever properties you can. No matter what, you’re searching for an identity, and most young people grasp onto their personalities wherever they can find it. It’s not hard to see why a lot of young people, myself included, found such an identity in the Sonic the Hedgehog games, even if they grew up in a period where all the games released in the franchise were hot stinky garbage (I loved Sonic and the Secret Rings, I have no shame). They had a paper-thin edge that feels subversive and “adult” to young children looking to be older than they were, trading the elegance and simplicity of its platforming counterparts for a slipperier, more visceral experience.
It does no good for me to lie and say the one thing I was wanting from the 2020 film of Sonic the Hedgehog was nostalgia. Just like with last year’s Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, the games I played as a young lad have a profound effect on me, and seeing them brought to life, like I had always pictured as an over-imaginative kid, fills me with so much joy. It’s such a disappointment then that unlike Detective Pikachu, which shamelessly codes the simple joys of its video game predecessors into an emotionally identical romp, Sonic the Hedgehog only rarely manages to successfully inspire that same sense of childlike joy, and when it does, it’s sandwiched in between caveats, product placements, and a formula that rests on the past ten years of talking CGI animal flicks.
Ben Schwartz stars as the titular blue blur, an alien hedgehog that can run faster than the speed of sound. In this film’s telling of Sonic’s origin (an origin that he does not have, because he’s a fast blue rodent, and anyone asking for backstory past that point is insane), he is sent on his own after his caretaker, a giant owl, is overcome by echidnas looking to steal Sonic’s power. It’s an opening scene so obviously placed to set up future films and characters that one can already see the bloated poster for Sonic the Hedgehog: Endgame, in theaters 2027. Sonic makes his way to Earth where he encounters Tom (James Marsden), a small-town sheriff who befriends him, and Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey), who is hired by the government to examine and capture the alien after becoming fascinated with his powers. Sonic and Tom go on a road trip, yada yada yada, hijinks ensue. It’s just an excuse to get to the inevitable showdown between Sonic and Robotnik, and that would be fine. The action scenes are legitimately fun here; they’re nothing special, but for a kid’s film, the energy is high and the effects are pristine. Schwartz and Carrey as well do great work inhabiting the boundless energy of their characters, clearly having a wonderful time bringing these sprites to life. It just sucks that neither of them are the main character.
More than anything else, the movie is about Tom and his struggles, in an attempt to ground the wacky adventure into something more human. Marsden does the best he can, but just like in 2011’s Hop, his presence does little but remind the audience that the filmmakers didn’t have the stones to go all the way. The humor is tacky and the emotional beats are as bare bones as they can be; only the brief moments of pure absurdity can bring the audience back in only to be thrown out again as soon as the screenwriters remember they have to turn in something so structurally ordinary that it would make Robert McKee fall asleep.
Sonic the Hedgehog isn’t a terrible family film, it’s about as good as someone can realistically expect from a movie of this caliber, but what makes it so disappointing is that we have proven that these sorts of restrictions are unnecessary. Detective Pikachu isn’t a great film, but its off-the-wall and manic energy can sustain itself quite well. All I wanted was for that film to be an omen instead of an outlier, because I really wanted this movie to work. Once the redesign was revealed, I watched the trailer on a loop a few times, because I saw the exact sort of movie that child me saw in his head whenever he would boot up Sonic Heroes for the hour a day he was allowed to play video games. That movie exists for about 20 total minutes of Sonic the Hedgehog, and I won’t take that away from director Jeff Fowler or the cast. The other 80 minutes though just serve to deflate and befuddle the audience as they tap their toes through another set of jokes to get to the good stuff. Gotta go a normal speed and stop at red lights!