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Friday, February 14, 2020

Sonic the Hedgehog

It will probably come as no surprise when I tell you that Sonic the Hedgehog is not a great movie, but what may be surprising is that it's better than you are probably expecting.  It's bright, has some decent laughs, and is honestly a lot of fun.  First-time director Jeff Fowler, and screenwriters Patrick Casey and Josh Miller, have given us probably the best movie based on the video games we could have asked for.

I don't see anything here that should be upsetting to long-time fans of the character, though if I must be honest, I haven't followed Sonic since his days on the Sega Genesis back in the 90s, so I'm not exactly up on my lore.  That being said, the movie more or less serves as an origin story for the little blue guy, who is brought to life with CG animation (which is pretty good, and much better than the early designs that were featured in the first trailer that created such a fan backlash, the movie had to be delayed in order to redesign him) and is voiced by Ben Schwartz.  We learn that Sonic originally hails from an alien world, where evil forces are trying to kidnap him in order to obtain and corrupt the power of speed that he holds.  His wise mentor, an owl by the name of Longclaw (voice by Donna Jay Fulks), warps Sonic to another world where he will hopefully be safe with the aid of a magic ring.  Naturally, the planet he ends up on is Earth.

On our world, Sonic takes to a small town in Montana called Green Hills, where he stays out of sight of people, and spends most of his time soaking up youth culture like Little League Baseball, action movies and comic books. (His superhero of choice is The Flash, of course.) He also learns about human ways by quietly observing different people at a distance.  His favorite humans are a local cop named Tom (James Marsden) and his veterinarian wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter), who come across as a warm and likable couple.  Tom is eager to leave small town life behind, and become a street cop in San Francisco so that he can have some excitement in his life.  He soon gets all the excitement he could ask for when the little alien hedgehog is forced to reveal himself to Tom, and the two will have to embark on a road trip/buddy comedy adventure together.

This happens because Sonic's latent powers went out of control one night, and caused a massive power outage across part of the nation.  This alerts the government, and fearing that it might be the work of terrorists, they send the eccentric robotics scientist, Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey), to find the source of the mysterious energy wave that caused the mass blackout.  As the evil Robotnik discovers the existence of Sonic and becomes obsessed with capturing and dissecting him, it's not hard to conclude that the antagonistic relationship between the Hedgehog and the mad scientist is inspired by that of the Coyote and the Road Runner from the old cartoons.  Marsden's Tom gets caught in the middle of it all, trying to help Sonic retrieve his warp rings so that he can send himself to a different, safer planet.  There's nothing really new here, but what is here is done with wit and a little more heart than you might anticipate.

A movie like Sonic the Hedgehog passes or fails almost solely on the special effects, and whether or not we believe them, and are convinced that the human actors are interacting with the CG character.  In my eyes at least, it passes.  Marsden has to spend probably 90% of his screentime talking to something that wasn't there on the set, and he sells it.  He manages to create a bond of sorts with his animal co-star.  Credit also has to go to voice actor Ben Schwartz, who makes Sonic into a fast-talking wise guy, but not to the point that he grows tiresome.  There's an innocence and sweetness that he brings to the character, especially when he begins to realize how lonely he is on Earth, and creates a Bucket List of things he would like to do before he leaves our planet. (They include "Get in a bar fight", and "Make a friend".) Thanks to the performances of both actors, and the effects work used to bring the titular star to life, it creates a convincing illusion.

Meanwhile, as the villain Robotnik, Carrey is more or less off doing his own thing, and basically trying to give the kind of manic comedic performance that made him one of the biggest stars in Hollywood some 30 years ago.  With his bizarre mannerisms and twirly mustache, he's off-kilter enough to be seen as a threat, but still goofy enough that he won't scare the youngest kids in the audience.  It's obvious that the filmmakers basically let him rewrite his scenes however he saw fit, and while it doesn't quite live up to his classic comic performances, it is probably the strongest work he's done in a while.  I say if it gets the attention of kids, and has them seek out some of his earlier films, it's worth it.

Let's face it, expectations were not exactly high here, especially given Hollywood's track record of bringing video games to the big screen.  But, I was actually surprised by how much I found myself enjoying this.  It does everything a Sonic the Hedgehog movie should do, and because it does, I'm sure we'll be getting the sequel that the ending hints at.  As long as it's as pleasantly surprising as this, I'm all in.

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