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I never expected to analyze the Sonic the Hedgehog films because I never planned to watch them. Having heard surprising praise for them, and after hearing about how Jim Carrey got inspired to play the villains of the films, I was curious. So a friend and I watched both of them.
They weren’t “not bad,” they were actually “pretty good.” Not the kind of films I’d watch again, but if someone wanted to see them for the first time and invited me, I’d do it. The movies also provide some valuable filmmaking insights about doing things well.
If you’re somehow not familiar with Sonic the Hedgehog, the character started as a video game character – a blue hedgehog who can run fast and battles the villainous human Dr. Robotnik aka Eggman. The game inspired a number of sequels, comics, shows, animated movies, and finally, live movies that faced a serious challenge of story.
To make a new series of live movies is to confront the dizzying continuity behind the Sonic the Hedgehog property. There are many different “lores” to choose from, and not a few are laden with controversy, design choices, and weird legal issues. The sweep of “takes” on Sonic the Hedgehog ranges from charmingly simple to insanely complex to weirdly horny.
What the people behind the Sonic The Hedgehog films wisely did is start the hell over.
In the first movie, we meet super-fast superpowered Sonic (Ben Schwartz), right as his owl mentor Longclaw saves him from an attack. Longclaw saves the humanoid hedgehog by using alien tech to send him to Earth near the lovely town of Green Hills. There, the lonely Sonic develops an obsession local sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) while trying to stay hidden. When Sonic overuses his powers and creates a disaster, the military calls in black ops tech genius Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) and Sonic’s life changes.. Sonic ends up calling on Tom for help, and the two end up on a bizarre road trip – unwelcome as Tom is already coping with a life and career crisis. Battles, hijinks, and emotional bonding occur along with great visuals and gags.
It’s basically a superhero origin road trip buddy story. Yes, the film has multiple emotional arcs because it didn’t have any other choice. When you start with the basics of an idea, it’s not enough to carry a film, so a story is required.
Of course, they had a fantastic cast. Schwartz’ Sonic is funny, charming, and hyperactive with great delivery. Jim Carrey’s Robotnik goes on a slow slide into madness that only Carrey could pull off. The big surprise is Marden, who’s role could easily be generic, but he brings a charisma and father figure charm that really adds weight. There’s some surprisingly human and touching moments the actors put their all into it.
Added all up, Sonic gave us a story of a kind of found family bonding while coping with trauma and a life crisis. It went pretty hard.
As for the sequel film, I won’t spoil (because it’s hard not to), but it ramps it all up to eleven, has fun inverting roles from the first film, and has more emotional arcs. It’s not as even as the first, but it goes harder with more emotional stories, more twists, and some dark moments. The larger universe the series is one with serious elements in it.
If this sounds familiar, it’s similar to the Marvel formula – use the original as raw material, find resonant story arcs, get the best cast, write the script well. Sonic the Hedgehog had so much to draw from it had to start with nothing, and thus make the stories even more about characters. I think the film could never have been mediocre – they would have been this good or utterly dismal.
If there’s a lesson to take from this beyond “just do things well,” it’s that there’s a real value in realizing an idea by mostly starting over. There’s a time to admit complex continuities, and many universes just burden you – or have already told their tale. Sometimes you have to ask “what matters” and start from there.
It might just get me to root for a blue hedgehog in a film I never expected to enjoy.