Against all preconceptions, “Sonic the Hedgehog” is a sharp and very human tale about loneliness, and the limits of what you can accomplish alone. Sonic is from another planet, and he’s lived, in hiding, in a Montana suburb for 10 years. His joy is sustained through comic books and toys, but he longs for friendship.
Enter Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), the sheriff of idyllic Montana suburb Green Hill. Green Hill is a sleepy hamlet, and Wachowski wants nothing more than to hit that thunder road and become a top cop in San Francisco.
Sonic knows of Wachowski, but Green Hill’s top cop is oblivious of Sonic until circumstances bring the U.S. military and its top drone developer, Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) to find Sonic and dissect him for science experiments. The plot eventually develops into a road trip movie as the protagonists travel from Montana to San Francisco.
The movie’s tone, humor and quick wit will feel familiar for fans of Edgar Wright, director of “Hot Fuzz,” “Shaun of the Dead” and several other witty buddy comedies. Kids will be absolutely delighted. But older viewers (such as 38-year-old adults, like myself) will also find something here: The film respects its audience’s intelligence.
The trailers don’t spoil the film’s best jokes. In fact, the jokes already shown off in trailers were the only parts of the movie that felt off. The most hilarious scene involves Sonic, an adrenaline junkie, reacting to his discovery of the “biker bar” concept.
It’s an unspoken rule that 3D cartoon characters must spout modern day pop cultural references, right? “Sonic the Hedgehog” actually justifies this in its plot, and the name-drops are tied to the film’s central theme of connecting with others. Sonic references Keanu Reeves, for example, and it’s not cringe, it absolutely makes sense.
Kudos to Marsden for keeping Wachowski as a pleasing straight-man presence next to Ben Schwartz’s pitch-perfect Sonic voice work, and Carrey returning to the scene-chewing elasticity of his virtuosic ”Ace Ventura” performances.
Did you think Quicksilver’s scenes in the X-Men films were the best those movies had to offer? “Sonic the Hedgehog” offers two standout scenes just like it, but with Looney Tunes aplomb that arguably makes them more fun. It’s hilarious in retrospect that the most recent Star Wars film embraced all the worst aspects of video game storytelling, while this movie, based on a level-structured video game franchise, avoided those tropes altogether. What a pleasant surprise.
Sonic also famously boasts one of the largest and strangest online fandoms, and the movie makes nods to several memes, none of which distract from the plot. The film is in on the joke. It feels like a friend made it.
And that’s the difference between this and so many other video game films. Tyson Hesse, a Sonic fan artist who eventually began official work on the franchise, was brought in to salvage the film from the backlash of the horrifying original design Paramount Pictures proposed.
Redesigning Sonic was not only smart, it was necessary. The original design was so terrible, it would’ve sunk this otherwise heartwarming and expertly crafted film. Sonic fans have long been victimized by a gauntlet of mediocre-to-terrible video games. The memes have been a way to cope. It’s no surprise that Sonic Mania, a 2018 fan-led Sega game to which Hesse contributed, remains one of Sonic’s few bright spots this century. Adding a messy Sonic movie to the lineage of bad games and tie-ins would have been tragic.
Speaking of Sonic Mania, sharp-eared Sonic fans will hear some familiar tunes. Yes, you’ll even hear the piano jazz stylings of Jon Batiste, band leader for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and lifelong Sonic fan.
And if you’re not a fan, never fear. This film is far more accessible to general audiences than last year’s ”Detective Pikachu.” As a character, Sonic the Hedgehog has always been a relatively empty vessel, his most defining personality traits being that he was the definitive ‘90s mascot ”with attitude” and that he loves chili dogs.
This gave free rein for director Jeff Fowler and screenwriters Patrick Casey and Josh Miller to tell a simple story that is a breeze to follow. The film is laser focused on its beating blue heart: an outsider’s desire for belonging.
The “Sonic the Hedgehog” film is the furthest thing from “Cats,” despite the early comparisons. Wary fans expecting the usual easy target to mock will instead find something to fervently celebrate for years.
This is the greatest Sonic story ever told, and it’s not even close. Sonic has finally made it through. This film will prove it to you.