I’ve been wondering how to tackle this review for some time. There’s a thousand ways to go and only one destination they all end up at. The destination? Tragedy.
I think this review is best served in discussing the film as it is alone first, then discussing the broader implications of Sonic as a franchise and as an approach after this.
The film is a sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog (2020). This means the film actively continues plot elements and, most importantly, returning cast members both primary and supporting. The original film was one step removed from the likes of Hop (2011), with really the only difference being an Easter Bunny or a blue hedgehog. Did it properly utilize the character and franchise? To a large extent, no. If what you prized was the bold and colorful aesthetic or the momentum and pacing of the original Genesis Sonic games, you’re going to be left wanting. The characterization of Sonic in the film (and here, too) is of a child. This is surely to make Sonic a protagonist, one capable of learning and developing relationships instead of being a fully fledged hero. Yet, the manic personality of Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) is less an affectation of anything seen in a Sonic game and moreso just… Ben Schwartz spouting shallow Olive Garden promotions and outdated humor. Sonic’s interactions with those human characters of Tom (played by James Marsden), Maddie (played by Tika Sumpter), and Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) also felt stiff and largely removed from anything relevant to the interests. Any time humans were on the screen, it was cheap and static. They’d sooner be filming direct-to-dvd in terms of production quality and effort. Robotnik is sort of the exception to the rule, at least in the sequel, and we’ll get to all of that.
In continuing these characters and plot elements, which certainly weren’t interesting the first time around, the film wants to commit to having both a satisfying Sonic fan experience and a kids movie that anyone can enjoy. Unless you’re very easy to please, neither succeed. The human elements are largely separated for the majority of the film. Instead of it being a buddy story between Tom and Sonic, now it’s a story about the video game CGI characters stopping Eggman, and an entirely other story about characters nobody has ever liked showing up to do things to extend the runtime and give the already cheap budget some time to breathe.
Make no mistake, for all the complaints or praises I’m going to say regarding the script, the ultimate problem with Sonic 2 is it’s UGLY. Profoundly so. Part of it may be the humans, the cheapness, but the Tyson Hesse designs of the game animals (which have an admirable quality to them in single shots or what have you) can look completely awful depending on the moment and especially in intense scenes of action or motion. Close-ups regarding hair effects are especially unpleasant, and Tails alone would make my eyes demand bleach for a palate cleanser. If I could fix one thing about the film, and just one thing, I’d make it more visually appealing. In any way. Make me want to look at your movie screen, movie.
The film’s main conceit and hook is that Dr. Robotnik is back, far closer in resemblance to the video game counterpart, and Carrey is given much more screen time and license to chew the scenery. To add to that, new CGI characters Tails and Knuckles are meant to add into Sonic’s roster of friends and rivals and also make the world feel more “video gamey.” This entire attempt to feel more like a video game works in some ways, and absolutely fails in others.
I think I’d point to Tails as a perfect picture of my problems. Tails is the primary offender of aesthetic here, primarily because his tail animations demand the most effort for the hair physics and that demand is not being met. Tails also showcases some of the core problems. This film is about Sonic making friends, but Tails as a character (even in the games) is a friend because the world demands it to be. So Tails comes out fully formed, only sad because of how alone he is. Yet, he’s seen all of Sonic’s adventures and is Sonic’s biggest fan. So really, all it takes is some time, and Sonic goes “Yeah, you’re my best friend.” There is no examination or real progression. There didn’t have to be, but to make it worse the moments that define their friendship are some of the most shallow and poorly thought moments in the film. We are talking dumb, outdated ideas of “dance-offs” to music that was popular eight years ago. The energy and chemistry is stilted. You could blame any number of issues, but Tails and Sonic are forced together and they don’t feel like they belong together beyond our own expectations.
Tails also showcases the problem of “plot.” For a film that’s riding the line and picking and choosing the elements of live-action children films and beloved video games, this film chooses to have really dumb extended exposition scenes in which Tails and Knuckles (he’s not innocent either) talk about things nobody cares about and there’s no real inner logic behind anything. This feels like a Sonic game alright, I promise that. Just not good ones.
Knuckles has a more enjoyable personality and a better rapport with both Robotnik and Sonic. Knuckles brings out the better moments of cartoon personality and video game movement. His seriousness is a joke that probably plays the best out of any jokes in the film, until Carrey starts flossing.
The best thing I can say about Robotnik here is I think Carrey is bringing an admirable energy and is enjoying his role. That’s more than I could’ve said for the first film, and it’s especially admirable when he’s the only one able to really bounce off these characters and make them feel animated. He’s mugging and moving and stretching more than Knuckles in many scenes. If there was an actor who works here, it’s Carrey. The material provided still isn’t good enough and the jokes almost never land beyond that admirable energy.
I’ve completely ignored the Tom/other live-action actor scenes and stories because of how actively bad they are. Most of them take place during a wedding involving a character who had like two scenes in the first film. The wedding sequences would feel like a nice breather if it wasn’t for the fact that they feel so far removed from the main story, until the stories intertwine and it makes things worse for both of them. Resolutions have to be pulled out of nowhere and screen-time is devoted to nonsensical conflicts that didn’t need to be in the film in the first place.
I don’t mind Sonic’s characterization as a child. I don’t even mind the idea of “making friends and being responsible” as core problems for Sonic in this film. I don’t think Sonic has much characterization in anything, other than a vague sense of attitude depending on the game and tone (and even that is played up differently in different regions). I don’t think Sonic has a character to be faithful to in this context, beyond just aesthetic. It’s telling that the original Sonic design was something completely unique to the film, and when people pushed back on the horrible ugly uniqueness they instead settled for (and I like Hesse’s designs) mediocre renders of standard Sonic designs. That feels like what Sonic is to me: awkwardly stumbling and wavering in finding a unique creative voice and face and actively trying to engage in fan service with no idea of what most people want. For over twenty years.
The film feels more like a Sonic game than some might think. The issue is assuming Sonic is always speedy, because he’s not. The film makes a primary point to try to put Sonic in scenarios where momentum isn’t working. Where he can’t do things on his own. Specifically, snow and water. These actually manifest as phobias for Sonic, but the snow isn’t properly reflected as something Sonic can’t move properly in. It’s never said or stated, it’s only something I really noticed in how Sonic moved around the snow. Tails specifically helps him navigate a blizzard as he’s lost. Sonic is still quite mobile and fast in the air and the ground is what prevents him from just running around like the Flash. The snow segments also provide one of the most explicit Sonic moments of the film. Yet, it’s not primarily a Genesis Sonic. Sonic snowboarding is famously a Sonic Adventure (and some others but mostly that) level. The ruins are far more of standard Sonic fare and you can actively appreciate what the film could be if it actually devoted itself to that sort of world. It doesn’t last for long. It’s worth noting here that the assumption Sonic is meant to always be fast is just an error in understanding Sonic games. Sonic has often hit abrupt stops in levels, where levels and zones are meant to interrupt pacing for a much more jarring sense of gameplay. This is most evident and famous in the original Marble Zone. The truth is just that nobody has ever liked those moments, and those moments are everywhere in those games. This mediocrity that Sonic as a film resembles is just one in a long line of mediocrity, beyond even just the games. The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog as a cartoon or Sonic X as an anime similarly carry vague notions of what Sonic is and could be. Sonic is nothing.
And I guess that’s the broad idea here. I can talk about so many problems the movie itself has, because it has many. Yet, I came away thinking that this is truly a Sonic film. It’s just a Sonic film with the ugly parts too. Elements of modern Sonic’s melodrama and flatness and extended lore seep into the film, yet it’s not for the better. Large bits to acknowledge and incorporate these games function as fan service rather than a good product. Yet, how many good products has Sonic actually been in? How much of Sonic does anyone actually like? It’s telling how many die-hard Sonic fans love this film. Yet, those are the same fans that probably really enjoyed Sonic Forces. As long as you had the aesthetic of being faithful to them, they would go to the ends of the Earth for you. Shadow the Hedgehog has been teased in the credits, and there’s a strong argument to be made Shadow has never been in a good game. Shadow’s been in the franchise for about twenty years now. What is Sonic anymore?
Is this a film for Sonic fans or children? Neither, and it’s not a very good film removed from those. Yet I’m hesitant on calling this film a failure. It seems by most accounts to be doing well in the box-office and many do seem to be responding to it. It certainly pleases people and I don’t think the cynicism within is profoundly upsetting or offensive. Just disappointing to some, I’m sure. I’ve always been one to try to gauge expectations and demands to what the product ultimately becomes, and this film I think is really good at being exactly what it is. I felt like I saw this film when it was announced. I could probably write a review for Sonic 3 right now. Any disappointment to be had is in hoping for anything better. To hope for anything at all anymore.
And Sonic sez that’s nooooo good.