Just to get the bona fides out of the way, I love Sonic the Hedgehog. I’m not really a fan of the games, the majority of which are bad for a variety of comically absurd reasons. No, I subscribe to the Arin Hanson theory of Sonic fandom: the blue blur has endured for nearly thirty years now because of a simple yet iconic character design and a devil may care attitude that other animal mascots of the nineties would emulate to extremity and ultimate irrelevance. Everything else comes second to how Sonic looks and feels as a personality, so it’s entirely understandable that the internet flew into hysterics when that first Sonic the Hedgehog trailer featured a drastically different visual take on the character. Setting aside the ethics of redesigning the character based on audience reaction prior to the film’s release, many people, including myself, had doubts that the film would understand the appeal of Sonic and fall squarely into that category of cartoons-invading-the-real-world tripe that has been a staple of lazy studio adaptation for decades. That would be exactly the kind of misstep that ironic appreciators of the azure rodent’s persistent icon status (see: me) would eat up as a cult object.
However, it’s my great pleasure to report that Sonic the Hedgehog is actually pretty dang good. Not without its share of hiccups, mind you, but if you’ve got kids of a certain age, you’re definitely in for a good time for the whole family.
Many of those hiccups come unfortunately early on, with an opening framing device that is a hair away from featuring a record scratch and the words “You’re probably wondering how I got here,” and an origin story where Sonic as a child is mothered by a giant owl for some reason. (I suspect this odd detail is meant to set up a potential sequel, so it’s strange to see it crammed into the beginning of this movie.) But once things get going on Earth, we find the adrenaline junkie hedgehog (voiced by Ben Schwartz) living in a cave outside the rural Montana town of Green Hills. (Ha!) He’s laying low for his own protection, but in his loneliness has developed a stalkerly fascination with a local police officer, Tom Wachowski (James Marsden). When he unwittingly unleashes a wave of energy in a fit of super speedy angst and causes a town-wide blackout, the US government takes notice and sends the neurotic scientist Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) to find the source of the power. Complications ensue to push Sonic and Tom together on a road trip to San Francisco in order to allow Sonic to escape to another world.
So what we have here is a buddy road comedy with Marsden playing the straight man to a fast-talking alien rodent, and when you meet the movie on those terms, it’s a pretty good time. Schwartz brings a ton of energy to the role that inflects the hedgehog with just enough melancholy and loneliness that he isn’t just an obnoxious cartoon sidekick, but is really and truly the protagonist of the film. Marsden also does a great job conveying a genuine friendship with a character that he pointedly has very little physical contact with, almost as if the filmmakers weren’t quite sure yet of the size or dimensions of the character they would eventually put on screen. But it’s Jim Carrey’s movie to steal in the villainous role of his career. (Apologies to Batman Forever fans.) If you’re nostalgic for the height of Sonic’s pop-cultural relevance, you’re likely the exact age demographic that will revel in the return of this kind of Carrey pastiche, and not only does Carrey chew scenes, he steals them entirely to devour them whole. It’s an extremely fun performance that’s going to introduce a whole new generation to the man’s eccentricities.
As for whether this comedy is actually funny, I think your mileage will vary. Personally, I’d say that for every joke that lands – and there are plenty of legitimately great laugh lines – there’s one that misses by just as much. Yet I’m also enough of an adult to recognize that humor is not universally tailored to my sensibilities, and kids in my screening seemed to eat up a lot of the gags I found tiresome. What’s more surprising is how thematically the film expresses this aggressive perspective of rural community’s moral superiority to urban elitism, which is to be expected of a film aimed squarely at Middle America, but also touts strong pro-immigrant support through Sonic’s status as a refugee of his own world and anti-militarist sentiment through Robotnik’s excessive reliance on drone technology. These aren’t themes that beat you over the head as obvious messages of the film, but it’s interesting to see this mish-mash of political perspectives permeate through what is ostensibly supposed to be a family popcorn movie.
So yeah, I was pleasantly surprised by Sonic the Hedgehog. I was locked and loaded for this review to be a torrent of ironic appreciation for the kind of misguided thinking that gave rise to the original design in that instantly meme-able first trailer, but instead I found a film that complimented the spirit of the character as much as the superior redesign. Live and learn, eh?