The Sonic the Hedgehog videogames disrupted the platformer genre. SEGA’s impetuous for innovation was two-sided: the games expanded the scope of level design, offering alternate pathing and depth to the world-building construction, and — most importantly — you had to go fast. Sonic was the result of on-brand messaging, an edgier, faster mascot made to be emblematic of the SEGA Genesis’s blast processor. The first set of games was truly unique — and then Sonic had to adapt. Again and again, as SEGA floundered while making consoles that were ahead of their time and against the market, Sonic’s concept stagnated in various forms of arrested development, ultimately only offering mascot exploitation.
It is only right that he now stars in an exploitation picture. The initial trailer suggested a gruesome horror movie. Sonic was a malformed, disproportioned embodiment of every reductive meme ever made about his design. Grotesque and lanky, his mouth held cracked out human teeth. More monster than a mascot, the design team went back to the drawing board and emerged with a passable rendition — the new design works, insofar as it does not make the audience regret the existence of movies.
Many therapy and plastic surgery appointments later, Sonic has been released into the public consciousness yet again, with many of the same problems that have always haunted his legacy. The new movie has shouldered the popular meme “gotta go fast” as the character’s raison d’etre. All he gets to do is move fast and build portals to faraway places by throwing down a ring. Ben Schwartz tries at voice acting, over many badly paced jokes, and none of them land. His characterization is exclusive to an attribute that is no longer interesting outside of a videogamey context. It does not actually pander hardly at all to the videogames, but it’s also confusing why it was made, as just a simple kid’s flick with an outmoded mascot. The most telling moments that the culture has moved on were that Sonic’s most effective actions were not born of his nostalgia at all, but when he flossed and threw out an empty Pew Die Pie quip, a simple “nailed it!”, which three kids in attendance echoed, each taking turns. They care about Fortnite, not a troubled 90s mascot in need of a Wreck it Ralph (2012)-esque self-help meeting.
This is all burying the lead: Jim Carrey is back. Playing arch-rival Robotnik, he had donned a funny mustache and returned to his casual, relaxed comedy styling that made his name (before emerging as a serious actor of considerable weight). What works best in Sonic the Hedgehog is his colorful reprisal of the role, creating a lively and animated image that goes above the call of the role. There is a feeling nobody else could fill this role quite as cleanly as Carrey. He does not embarrass himself, getting some funny moments as a madcap evil genius, dancing about in his lab, scolding his subordinates, performing with a surprising depth of character that does not extend to any other part of the film. If you need an excuse to go see this movie, beyond the memes, you have at least one of them.
What is maybe most surprising is how hard the production leans away from the storied but inconsistent videogamey past. Even making a new Sonic game — there are so many avenues to consider, so many divergent paths in the series history, whether we’re dealing with green or black-eyed Sonic, the Genesis lineage or after — and the movie presents the context as though there were not any videogames at all. It forms into a basic buddy road trip movie. Much of the focus is on a man named Tom Wachowski (a Chris Pine-lite James Marden). He lives in Green Hills, Montana and has received an offer to move his family to San Francisco to join the police force. Weirdly, the whole picture becomes a simple reminder to stay where you are, to love your station in life, although nothing is illustrated that suggests the characters should do that. He is married to a nice Tika Sumpter — she tries but there is no chemistry — and a plot emerges around her sister’s suspicions of him. When Sonic short-circuits the power all over the Pacific Northwest, they go on a drive to California to retrieve the hedgehog’s rings so he can transport himself to a land of strange mushrooms that he really has no interest in going to. Josh Miller has penned the script, mostly acquainted with some small productions of genre fodder, and does not find any drive or purpose, no tangible motivations that provide any true impetuous for moving the plot.
The road trip is the stuff of preliminary children’s movies. Sonic partakes in a lot of silly stuff. There are many jokes about how fast he is. There is a small action segment where Robotnik employs a Batmobile-esque tank and tries to take out the truck they are driving. Sonic does a bit of action and they make a joke about family (Fast & Furryious?) and that’s as good as its referential humor will ever get. It is constantly commenting on modern things that will not age with any grace, filled with advertisements (at least a few Olive Garden bits) and there is a big vacuous feeling about the whole thing, that anything can fit in here because it does not have any clear direction. The only fun use it finds from the character is when they’re at a biker bar and Sonic is really fascinated by the meth-induced culture happening outside it. Finally, he is home. There is a fun little fight segment, revealing Sonic not only moves fast but his perception is heightened, time is an empty space where events play out in slow motion, which is also how it feels watching the movie.
The good news is that they saved the project from its previous grotesque format. What might have only been interesting as a bizarre cult movie insisting on its own memes is now a lukewarm children’s film. It is not the worst outing. There are fine and funny moments. It’s a stripped-down road movie that does not worry about why it’s being made, despite a sizable budget, it exists to exist. Perhaps some of the time meant for shaping it went into serious redesigns. But the most serious redesign needed is in the script. There is only so much goodwill Jim Carrey can bring, as we’re constantly leaving him for undercooked filler. When Sonic the Hedgehog occasionally finds the movie it needs to be, it really is a few minutes of fun, it’s just too bad how fleeting and non-nostalgic it all is, while still managing to be a cloying picture for kids and their bored parents.