We’ve known for a while that unique difficulties arise when Hollywood tries to adapt videogames to film. Despite some favorably received movies that are videogame adjacent, a true, successful adaptation of a major mascot character from an honest-to-goodness mainline series remains stubbornly out of reach.
Sonic the Hedgehog was not going to change that just based on its trailers. The movie sports the sort of script you’d expect somebody to have written on spec back in the 1990s before it got unceremoniously dumped into a waste bin after Super Mario Brothers came out. Its mildly obnoxious main character is somewhat true to the Sonic we know and love, but the real way in which it remains true to the phenomenon that is Sonic is that it blithely pitches everything useful about the character and the world into the trash and barrels obliviously ahead.
Sonic is, at his core, flash and style. Sega’s Japanese and American branches were determined to do what Nintendon’t, and the flagship character they jointly developed back in the ’90s was built around showing up their competitors. Along with the too-fast-to-follow, one-hit-and-you’re-back-to-square-one gameplay came cartoon and comic tie-ins. In this aspect, Sonic was also something of a people pleaser: The Japanese, American and even European incarnations of Sonic all sported different origin stories and central conflicts.
We love Sonic, but we apparently can’t get a straight answer from him on who he is or where he comes from. Even in the United States there wasn’t agreement on this: The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog was a cartoon founded on lame sitcom premises with dopey henchmen, and the Saturday morning cartoon Sonic the Hedgehog was a high-stakes adventure story that cast Sonic as the hotheaded pinch hitter for a resistance movement against Dr. Robotnik’s techno-dystopia. (I’ll leave it to you to guess which one might have made a better film adaptation.)
It was fine for this fracturing to exist in the 1990s, in a time when you could show people different faces when you went to different parties and none would really be the wiser. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world anymore. The internet showed up and the various Sonic continuities collided with each other—a bunch of unstoppable forces ramming into a bunch of immovable objects. Sonic has never had a clear origin story as a result, because any one of them is invariably rewritten or rebooted as it begins to gain traction.
Sonic must go fast, I guess the thinking goes. Better to just leave anything behind and rush on to the next thing rather than maybe stop for a second and try to gather up some of the things that have worked over the years.
Bizarrely, the movie chooses to go with story elements you won’t recognize unless you either breathlessly followed the Archie Comics iteration of Sonic the Hedgehog, and specifically the stuff written by Ken Penders—the writer whose litigation basically took a whole bunch of story plots and characters off the table for the ongoing series.
The movie opens with Sonic growing up in what appears to be an idyllic paradise for an anthropomorphic hedgehog gifted with supersonic speed, right down to the same naturally occurring, grass-covered loop-de-loops found in the game. He is being raised by an impeccably rendered owl named Longclaw which I am 99% confident in saying has never before appeared anywhere in any Sonic lore. As the film opens, we’re given about 90 seconds to get to know her before she’s shot through with arrows … by a tribe of baddies who resemble longtime Sonic rival Knuckles the echidna.
The comics did, in fact, feature a whole race of echidnas with an entire vaunted history and internecine conflicts. It was a whole thing! Sonic the Hedgehog promptly leaves those possibilities in the dust, warping Sonic to modern-day Montana.
So he can go on buddy cop adventures with James Marsden’s bland small-town cop character.
The reasoning behind the shift to the most boring setting possible is as easy to explain as the truly cringe-inducing product placement. The studio was worried that they would not make one cent more on this thing than they spent on it and, like Sonic’s one-man show mugging as he plays the part of an entire baseball game with himself, they figured the solution was to go broad when really it should’ve been to swing for the fences. Execs must have figured that audiences—who have happily given money to stuff like Guardians of the Galaxy and were apparently unconcerned about a world where Pokemon coexist with humans—might be put off by something set in a wild sci-fi world inhabited by furries.
So we get a story about Marsden, his wife (Tika Sumpter) and their attempts to recover the means for Sonic to warp out of our world and move on to the next. (It’s pretty clearly supposed to be Mushroom Hill Zone from Sonic 3M.) They’re pursued by Dr. Robotnik, played by a 58-year-old Jim Carey who burns not one calorie less than he did in roles as Ace Ventura or The Mask.
There’s barely an earned character turn or emotion in the whole thing. But for one tease at the very end that had the whole theater cheering, there are no characters apart from Sonic and Robotnik from any other iteration of the franchise, and the things the movie does set up aren’t that interesting. And yet, against all odds, Sonic the Hedgehog wasn’t actually all that bad. It certainly wasn’t good, but it wasn’t an unmitigated disaster that will torpedo any chance Sega has of trying to make another one, nor was it any less than blandly pleasant to watch most of the time.
That’s unquestionably what passes for a victory for this franchise these days. We’ll need to see if they decide to once again throw it all out the window for the next installment, if we get one.
Kenneth Lowe, he can really move, Kenneth Lowe, he’s got an attitude, Kenneth Lowe, he’s the fastest thing alive! You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.