I Was a Sonic Kid. The New ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ Movie Haunts (and Fascinates) Me.
The new “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie, based on the Sega video game franchise, is a blast from the past—including a very game Jim Carrey as the villainous Doctor Robotnik.
From a young age, I was blessed and cursed by Sonic the Hedgehog. My parents, bless their hearts, bought me a Sega Genesis with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for Christmas one year (I think I was six? I honestly can’t recall). I played the game a lot, though was scared of the boss battles against Doctor Robotnik, and would make my dad do them for me. When he wasn’t home, I’d play the first level, get to the boss battle, then reset the console and play the first level all over again. I did this so many times that eventually my console stopped working and we had to trade it in and get a new one. After this really, very deeply stupid incident, I overcame my primordial fear of fighting a deeply easy boss battle, and played the game on its own terms.
From that point on, the die was cast: I would be a Sonic Guy, struggling in a Mario world that didn’t, couldn’t understand me. I made some extraordinarily bad decisions based on this twist of fate. Did I acquire a battery-hogging, full-color, herky-jerky frame rate Game Gear and a bevy of mostly uninteresting games, instead of the less technically ambitious, but smoother-running Game Boy, with all its on-the-road bangers? Yeah, of course I did. Did I own a Sega Saturn, a system with maybe the worst library in the history of video gaming? Well, yeah, of course I did, I was a Sonic guy and loyalty meant something to me, even if I was left messing around with floaty-ass Sonic R controls while my peers were luxuriating in the power slides of Mario Kart 64.
I also read the comics. Sonic the Hedgehog comic books, published by Archie Comics, Inc., started out as a kind of fun animal comic (discount Carl Barks), but then, under the influence of eccentric-even-for-a-comic-book-artist editor Ken Penders, were transformed into something else entirely. Sonic went from a fun guy who loves to run, eat chilli dogs, and whoop on Dr. Robotnik into the greatest soldier of a group of diverse woodland creatures, called the Freedom Fighters, who are battling a world-dominating techno-facist regime that is seeking to turn all organic creatures into robots. There were politics, there was cross-species humanoid-animal romance—god, so much romance—there was a general tone of strangely-grim struggle, with the Freedom Fighters always seeming to barely stay one step ahead of the specter of robotization. And I loved it.
Sooner or later, I got an N64—Nintendo’s games: way better than Sega’s…why didn’t anyone tell me?!), started watching anime like a MAN, and left Sonic behind. But all that time and all that money spent at Fred Meyers has finally paid off, because now I am one of the only writers on the internet with the damn Sonic the Hedgehog bona fides that are necessary to speak truth to power regarding the new Sonic the Hedgehog movie.
It’s not great. It’s all right, though.
Here’s what happens. We meet Sonic when he is a baby. He is very fast, unnaturally so, so fast that there is a group of Echidnas trying to kidnap him for presumably nefarious purposes. He is saved by his mother-figure, an owl, who tells him that he has to hide forever because there will always be people trying to harvest his endless well of potential energy, and shoves through a big-ring portal, to Earth. He ends up in Green Hill, Montana (the Green Hill Zone is the first level of the first Sonic the Hedgehog game), where he spends years and years hiding, reading comic books and avoiding people, only interacting by watching them and pretending that he is their friend from a distance. It’s honestly a pretty depressing conceit, that Sonic had to basically live in solitary confinement, but still somehow less depressing than half of the Sonic stories in the comics.
Sonic plays baseball by himself, freaks out because he is insanely lonely (been there!), runs around the bases too fast, and manifests an incident that knocks out power across the American Northwest. The American military, represented here by a bunch of people in uniform, wonder, hey, what the fuck, and put Doctor Robotnik, portrayed here by Jim Carrey of all people, on the case, even though he is just insufferable. Soon, Sonic is forced into a partnership with a local sheriff—Criss Chross himself, James Marsden—and they have to go to San Francisco to retrieve his bag of rings, so he can leave Earth and go live alone on mushroom planet. But Doctor Robotnik is in hot pursuit so he can kidnap our hero and do horrible experiments on him, and even then, does Sonic want to leave Earth and live on an abandoned mushroom planet? I know I sure wouldn’t!
Sonic, voiced by comedian Ben Schwartz, is kind of like a PG-rated Deadpool, always talking during his action scenes, doing bits, irritating people but still being fundamentally lovable (Deadpool director Tim Miller is an executive producer here). Wisecracking fun guy is the vibe; it’s always been the vibe. He looks decent, which is good, because there was an early version of the character, seen in an infamous trailer, that looked absolutely horrible, with tiny little eyes and too-prominent teeth. Bigger, anime-ish eyes and normal teeth work much better. It’s weird it was a problem in the first place, given how there have been dozens of 3D renderings of Sonic in existence for a very long time.
The economics of moviemaking are so weird nowadays that Jim Carrey, once one of the highest-paid actors in the industry, a comedy superstar and a respectable dramatic actor, has brought it on himself to bring Doctor Robotnik to life, in hopes, I assume, that the movie will spread out into sequels and give him some decent franchise work for the next decade. But even if he’s cashing a check, Carrey’s performance is the best thing about the movie, bar none.
It combines the physical comedy he’s made his name with—lots of thrusting, angular movements, cartoonishly shocking himself with one of Sonic’s leftover quills—and an intense misanthropic trollishness, a movie villain not affording a single drop of respect to any other human being in the movie, constantly berating everyone he comes into contact with and bloviating, at length, about their worthlessness. Carrey’s take reminded me of Michael Gambon’s performance in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover—a loudmouthed prick storming around the movie abusing everyone he comes into contact with, increasing your loathing for him every second he’s on screen. Also, he does all this while playing Robotnik as a product of an incompetent military-industrial complex, something I am choosing to believe is slyly satirical, and not just convienent.
If the entire enterprise measured up to Carrey’s level of gameness, director Jeff Fowler’s Sonic would have been something really special, a strange blast of franchise-filmmaking id shooting out of a property that could probably be best described as “second-tier,” remembered fondly only by Genesis kids and furries, god bless every last one of them. But it just doesn’t have the chutzpah.
It also doesn’t help that Sonic in our world, interacting with human beings, just isn’t really the point of the franchise. Sonic lives on Mobius with his animal friends, man! Pardon the spoiler, but in a post-credits sequence—we’re trying to build a franchise here, people—Sonic’s pal Miles “Tails” Prower, a two-tailed fox who can use his tails as helicopter blades, appears out of a ring portal and says something like, “He’s here! I hope it’s not too late!” Presumably, a sequel to this movie would take our guy away from Earth, back to his homeland, where he would team up other weird-ass animals in a big animal adventure. As someone with some skin in the game, that sounds like something I can get behind. The thing they ended up making is just a shot in the dark, planting a seed and seeing if a franchise grows out of it. It’s not offensive to the fanbase, if only because the property’s history has been so weird and varied that I don’t know if you could make something that offended the fanbase at this point.