Nothing Is A Chance for Everything: The Sonic The Hedgehog Movies

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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.

Steven Savage

Everything Everywhere All At Once: Unspoilable Lessons

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

I want to do a review of Everything Everywhere All At Once, the science-fiction drama-comedy starring Michele Yeoh. I want to review it as not only is it worth reviewing, the movie has many lessons for writers and media creators. However, there’s a problem – I don’t want to spoil any of it.

There is nothing in the film I want to risk spoiling because even minor things add to the experience. Each time I think “here’s an example” to communicate the feel of the film, it would ruin some of the delights.

Thus a challenge – reviewing a film you shouldn’t spoil to extract lessons we can use. How do you review a movie this good without ruining it a bit?

In a rather Taoist/Buddhist fashion, I’m turning poison into medicine here. I will explain why I shouldn’t spoil things and what those things teach us about making good media. Its “do not dare spoil nature” is a lesson about why it is good.

So you probably know the basics from the ads. Michele Yeoh plays a woman, and somehow multiple universes and martial arts action are involved. That’s it. Now let’s see why Everything Everywhere All At Once works in a way that won’t tell you a damn thing about what happens.

Here’s why the movie works and what to learn.

The Right Cast:  Saying casting is “perfect” is trite, especially when you have, well, Michele Yeoh. But the entire cast is excellent, and dare I say at least one of them eclipses Michele Yeoh. Each person brings their all to the role and creates many personal, subtle moments. It’s these meaningful moments that are things I don’t want to spoil

Use of Location:  Locations are characters all their own as well as tools of narration and backstory. Everything Everywhere All At Once puts its locations to use, even down to the props, as they can tell stories. A poster, table, desk, or piece of junk can all say something to the audience. Location can and should matter – I just don’t want to go into detail because it spoils.

Emotional Truth: The commercials for Everything Everywhere All At Once are quite wild. But in that wildness are some core, powerful, emotional truths – “throughlines” if you were, weaving the wildness together. A good film sticks with you – and a day later, I was discussing not the scenes from advertisements but the characters and their feelings.  And I’m not telling you about those feelings, you have to see for yourself to “get it.”

The Chosen Form:  Building on that emotional truth, one fantastic thing about Everything Everywhere All At Once could be told in other genres. The chosen form (sci-fi action) was just one of many choices with which to do it. I find a good story, a good emotional truth, could exist in any form – and you can tell if it could or not. 

Use of Direction:  Everything Everywhere All At Once is exceptionally well-directed (if you’ve seen any ads, you can tell it has to be). There’s a fearlessness to the wild stylings and effects, a confidence, that makes the film work. Honestly, few directors could have done this – Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert were amfazing.

As crazy as Everything Everywhere All At Once may look, it is rock-solid in what it does – and what we learn from it. Have an emotionally resonant story, implemented well in your chosen genre, where location allows great actors to tell a relatable tale. There’s nothing in it that we haven’t heard before, but it’s done very well.

Now I hope you go out and see it – but afterward, don’t spoil. Leave others to be as surprised as you will most assuredly be.

Steven Savage

Double Dragon The Movie: Inside Not Out

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

I have never watched the entire Double Dragon film from 1994, the infamously bad video game “adaption,” until recently. I say adaption as the movie has nothing to do with the game – a game I remember playing in the arcades. Since the film is terrible, it probably makes the game look better.

Many things that make the film bad – the acting, the effects, the script. But one of the strangest things is that the movie has an enormous amount of “plot” that has nothing to do with the game. Does a film about “two guys beat up a gang to rescue someone” need a post-apocalyptic LA, gang politics, magical amulets, and the like? It’s a story where everything is grafted on.

None of this worked, as you may guess.

I started thinking about how others might approach a property like Double Dragon’s beat-them up. I was thinking specifically about some Hong Kong b-movies studios, indie studios, and the like. The plot was a significant problem of the movie, so how might someone with a fresher, “punkier” sense make such a movie?

The original game has no plot except “beat people up until you save the victim.”  Some versions add a few simple elements – the martial arts the heroes practice, their enemies (The Black Warriors), being in a post-war New York, and the heroes’ hope to save their kidnapped mutual love interest. Not a lot to go on, right?

So let me ask, what if you ran with this paltry lore instead of piling on extra elements. Don’t add things on, but go deeper into what you have from the limited lore. Indulge me for a moment.

First, two brothers practicing a strange martial art and with a potential romantic rivalry? With the right actors, that’s a core dynamic right there! We have two talented martial artists with a great burden – and a petty rivalry eating away at them? How do they evolve and grow as they battle their way through post-war New York? There’s a story!

Now lets’ take the Inevitable Kidnapped Interest, Marian. Rescue-the-girl tropes are sexist and overdone, so let’s shake it up. Marian let herself be kidnapped to infiltrate the Black Guardians, all arranged by the heroes’ master. Only the master got himself killed before he let them in on his plan to take down the Guardians. Now Marian has to pull a Die Hard from the inside to help the two occasionally bickering heroes defeat the bad guys and get her the hell out.

So we’ve got a Martial Arts Die Hard with arguing brothers? What about the setting?

We’ve got post-war (indeed post-nuke) New York. So let’s toss in some politics, just not the egregious ones of the film. Several martial arts groups have worked to bring the city back, and some of the gangs would be up for it – except the Black Guardians want to rule. So our heroes have a chance to unite the gangs to fight for the city, and battling the Black Guardians can do it. That was their master’s plan all along . . .

There you go, you’ve got a film. There’s an epic journey across a devastated New York, with the city’s future on the line.  Two likable badasses with a weak spot for arguing, trying to save the city and their love interest while fulfilling their masters’ last wish. A put-upon and clever female lead operating from the inside, trying to corral her would-be rescuers. Gang politics as an excuse for epic fights – and of course, it must end in all the gangs attacking the Black Guardians in a kind of Helm’s Deep of epic action.

You didn’t have to add on tons of unrelated stuff. Just extrapolate and go deeper with what you have. It’s still two guys battling to rescue a girl in a post-War gang-infested New York. You add some depth to make it mean more.

Less isn’t always more. But a few things with depth can make a movie or book or whatever far better than many elements with no depth.

Steven Savage