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

Why Motion Control On Game Consoles Isn’t an Edge

The Wii started the whole motion control thing with the Wiimote.  Now as I write this we have the Playstation Move and the Microsoft Kinect adding motion control to their respective consoles.  We are entering an age where everyone can make a total dork of themselves in their living room for the sake of video game entertainment.

As we approach the time where all of us have the chance to scare the cat while playing videogames, one question comes to mind (at least my mind) – does this actually matter to any company or their sales?

I'm not sure, but one thing I've been wondering about, one thing I want to share, is that perhaps this is the wrong question.  I'm starting to think Motion control is going to become "expected" in games consoles.  In short, is it a "new normal"?

Every major console will have Motion control, and of course the usual games that go with it (your usual family entertainment, some others that are expected, etc.).  At that point the question comes up – what makes them different?  What in short is the advantage when everyone is doing it?

I don't think it does to a significant extent.

The consoles have carved out some pretty good niches for themselves.  I don't see adding motion control affecting sales and usage overmuch.   It might at most dilute some competition, but the consoles already have distinct mindshare and pueblo c images.  Changing that is not going to come from releasing some motion control games.

Secondly, motion control is not suited to every game or every type – any experienced gamer has played games that wouldn't work well with point-and-press or waggle-and-wiggle.  There's only so much room for innovation in the games with this control scheme.  I don't think it's going to produce any other revolutions in gaming for now.

What I think motion controls mean is not some radical change or shift in gaming.  I think motion control is going to become the norm because everyone is doing it – and it seems to be expected.  Companies doing motion control will help keep their market, and perhaps expand it slightly – not make radical changes.

So I'm not expecting a revolution.  I don't think Wii players will move to the XBox in droves,  the XBox wont steal PS3 players due to Kinect.  I think this is just expected and normal and means that someone who likes the Wii may play some PS3 games, and the like.  There are many other reasons to buy and play consoles beyond motion controls – and the solid mindshare the consoles have has already defined their markets.

In a few years motion control will just be a normal option for any game console.  It's nothing radical.

Steven Savage