Not Quite in the (Green Hill) Zone – Sonic the Hedgehog

It is a rare thing for Hollywood to take audience criticism to heart. Sure, just about every major motion picture is focus grouped to death, with test screenings to beat the band, but those typically take place as the film is wrapping up production, with the reactions more used for the studio to calculate how much a movie is going to make at the box office, so they can adjust their ad campaigns accordingly, rather than seeing if any major changes need to take place. Sometimes audience reaction will affect the final edit, and every so often the main crew will go back into production to reshoot a few scenes. But for the most part, a production company or studio only listens to audience feedback from a marketing perspective.

When fans got their first glimpse at the “live-action” character model for Sonic the Hedgehog, an adaptation of one of the most beloved classic video games out there, the reaction was universal disgust. Why was Sonic so skinny and lanky? Why did he have human teeth? Why were his eyes so narrow? Why did his fur look like a shag carpet?

Suffice to say, there were a LOT of issues.

This could have torpedoed the film instantly. Paramount Pictures could have simply dug in their heels, wrote the movie off as a loss leader, and released it on schedule last fall, knowing full well it would flop and be eternally mocked. While Cats did make that horrible choice, the makers of Sonic took the public’s reaction seriously, and decided to do something about it. The release was pushed back four months, and the studio spent an additional $5 million to hire artist Tyson Hesse, who had worked on the Sonic franchise, to redesign the titular rodent to more resemble his in-game persona.

That sounds like a lot of money, and to any of us, it certainly is. To a movie studio, though, it’s pocket change. It’s the gesture that matters here. It’s the satisfaction of hearing, just once, from people in power, “Hey, we get it. We fucked this one up. Let’s fix it. Bear with us and we’ll get it right.” That $5 million investment will likely result in at least a 10-fold return at the box office. In the film’s opening weekend, it’s already made a profit. And it’s not hard to see why. Not only did our collective criticism change some minds, but the visual end result got us a lot closer to the Sonic we all know and love.

Now, is the rest of Sonic the Hedgehog all that great? No. Like just about every other movie adapted from a video game, there are myriad issues. But I will say that the redesign goes a long way towards viewing the film with more forgiving eyes. Yes, there are still some major problems with this movie, but they’re a lot more palatable when they’re not compounded by a main character who looks like the laziest guy at a furry convention.

At its core, Sonic the Hedgehog is your standard-issue buddy road trip movie, with the main theme being Sonic’s loneliness and yearning for real friends. On a basic level, we can all relate, and while it’s odd to have that moral come from an anthropomorphic blue hedgehog, this is primarily a kids movie, so it’s okay to pander to their sensibilities.

Oddly enough though, that’s what gives this movie its first major head scratcher. Opening on a world very similar to those of the video games (including the Green Hill Zone loop that made myself and my prepubescent comrades figuratively shit ourselves when seeing 16-bit graphics for the first time – AND IT WAS THE FIRST GODDAMN LEVEL!), we see a “baby” Sonic (curse you, Baby Not-YODA!) get chased by a gang of what look to be ninja assassins (but they all look like Knuckles the Echidna with face masks). His guardian, a heretofore unknown owl character named Longclaw (Donna Jay Fulks), tries to fly him to safety, but she gets shot with several arrows (KIDS MOVIE!) and uses a bag of rings to open up a portal and send Sonic to Earth, where he’ll be safe, presumably before she dies.

Now, putting aside the canonical implications of this entire sequence (Longclaw is new, and the rings typically are used as a life meter rather than a pocket Bifrost), this entire opening sequence is clunky. First, it appears that Longclaw was the only animated character that didn’t get a redesign, as she stands out like a sore thumb compared to the updated designs of Sonic and his pursuers. Second, and more importantly, the exposition is so clumsily thrown out in these opening moments that it’s almost impossible to keep up, even though basically none of it will matter ever again. Longclaw gives Sonic a bag of rings so that he can transport between worlds, and literally tells him that “these will be your most prized possession.” Thanks, narrator! Of course, the rings are hardly his most prized possession, more of a MacGuffin to drive the plot from about the middle of the first act onward, and while Sonic explains his ability to use them to travel to other worlds (by thinking about them), that isn’t part of Longclaw’s exposition dump in the opening scene, so how exactly did he figure that out?

Growing up on Earth, specifically the not real town of Green Hills, Montana, a more adolescent Sonic – now voiced by Ben Schwartz – loves the provincial life, particularly the exploits of the town sheriff Tom, whom he affectionately dubs “Donut Lord” (James Marsden), and his veterinarian/yogi wife (also possibly the only black woman in Montana), Maddie, played by Tika Sumpter. Sonic calls her “Pretzel Lady” after witnessing her yoga stretches. Sonic feels a kinship with them, spying on them on date nights when they cuddle up and watch movies, particularly Speed, which is a very odd choice for this PG-rated film, especially when Sonic references it throughout. I mean, the cursing aside, does Sonic understand Sandra Bullock’s assertion that Annie and Jack should base their relationship on sex? How does that work.

One night, in a particular fit of loneliness, Sonic somehow overpowers himself running around, causing an electrical blast that knocks out power to basically the entire Pacific Northwest. This leads the government to send out its top mad scientist to investigate, Dr. Robotnik, played by Jim Carrey. Most of the shots featuring him are filmed outdoors, because he chews every piece of scenery within a 10-mile radius. Think if Ace Ventura turned into a bad guy and grew a Salvador Dali mustache. Super convinced of his superior intellect, Robotnik goes full Ahab to track Sonic down so that he can experiment on and potentially weaponize the Blue Devil. He eventually earns his “Eggman” designation from Sonic himself, not due to his shape (I’ve always figured the name was a Beatles reference, because he is the Eggman and looks like a walrus, goo goo g’joob!), but because his seemingly endless army of non-enslaved-animal-powered drones look like ova.

Since Tom has been accepted into the San Francisco Police Department, Sonic uses the sad thought of him leaving when he accidentally spills a ring out on the floor to conjure up an image of the city, leading him to drop the bag right onto the roof the Transamerica Building. As such, Sonic enlists Tom’s help to get to Frisco so he can grab his bag of rings and escape to an uninhabited planet full of mushrooms, otherwise known as my Heaven. Madcap antics ensue.

A lot of the action and chase sequences are quite fun, and the redesign on Sonic certainly helps, but there are a bunch of problems along the way. Sonic’s speed capabilities are completely inconsistent, for example. In one early scene, he tests himself against Tom’s radar gun, clocking himself at up to 300 miles per hour. However, in another scene to illustrate his lack of a sense of direction, he instantly runs presumably from rural Montana to the Pacific Ocean and back in about two seconds, complete with gasping fish stuck to his head, because fish can stay flat as they’re flapping for breath at the speed of sound when not secured to a surface. It’s a funny gag, I guess, but even within the logic of the film it makes no sense. There is no Green Hills, Montana, but there is a Green Hills Ranch just outside of Bozeman. If we start there and just go straight west to Portland, Oregon, you’re looking at least 700 miles as the crow flies. By the film’s earlier math, it should take almost five hours for Sonic to make this joke.

There are a bunch of other things that just don’t work. Maddie’s sister Rachel (Natasha Rothwell), who lives in San Fran, exists solely to try to break Tom and Maddie up, because, reasons. The admittedly fun one-man baseball game that leads to Sonic’s lonesome EMP has points where he’s literally required to be in two places at once (sliding into himself at home plate, for instance), which means he’d have to be literally faster than light itself. There’s WAY too much product placement, including truly groan-inducing winks to Zillow and Olive Garden.

Even the redesign – while very much an upgrade – has its drawbacks, as there are quite a few moments where it’s clear that Marsden and the others are reacting to different focal points in the field that match up to Sonic’s previous design rather than his new one, which leads to bits like Tom holding Sonic by his shoulder when before it would have been his torso, or Robotnik staring straight at the top of Sonic’s head, because that would have been eye contact on the previous version. As for Robotnik himself, I’d say that it’s impossible for someone so blatantly evil and self-serving to rise to a high position in the federal government, but… *gestures vaguely at the last three years*.

But sadly, the biggest flaw of all is that Sonic is, well, kind of a dick. I love Ben Schwartz as a voice actor. He’s absolutely perfect as the opportunistic Dewey on the new DuckTales, and even as I’m typing this I’m watching him play a manipulative gym owner on Bob’s Burgers (why do all his characters wear blue?). He’s a poor man’s (and less annoying) Billy Eichner. But with Sonic, Schwartz’s loud, hyperactive energy only works in small doses before he starts sounding like a Jakovasaur. Similarly, almost all the problems encountered by Sonic on the journey are of his own making, because he’s so excitable and selfish that he seemingly has no instinct for self-preservation. Cute “bucket list” jokes aside, the guy literally starts an all-out brawl at a biker bar because he can’t bear to sit still for five minutes while Tom grabs supplies. He inserts himself into Tom’s life as his new best friend when there’s no chemistry to suggest such a relationship is even possible, much less logical. Yet he acts like he and Tom are old buddies and that Tom is his personal errand boy, obligated to give Sonic the adventures and experiences he dreams of before he leaves Earth for good. His own negligence gets him in more trouble than Robotnik ever could, and yet he has the unmitigated gall to call Tom selfish for wanting to advance his career by moving from bumblefuck nowhere to a big city like San Francisco. I’m sure all those who claim to live in “Real America” rejoice at the idea, but it’s pretty hypocritical on the Hedgehog’s part.

I understand on a thematic level that it’s hard for an alien to make contact with humans and become their friend. I suffer from social anxieties myself, and I’m just your run-of-the-mill nerdish human. I can’t imagine what it would be like for Sonic. But even so, that doesn’t give him carte blanche to stalk people, initiate interpersonal relationships purely out of need, take advantage of their overall good natures, and then cast aspersions on their lives just because they don’t sync up with what he wants. And it’s not like San Francisco is devoid of green hills and places to run around. Montana might be nice (never been, but the vistas look cool), but it’s not like Sonic would have nothing to do in the Bay Area. Why is San Francisco the worst place to be? Is Sonic secretly Riley from Inside Out? I mean, between that and this movie, I think these are the only times we see the city in a movie and the Golden Gate Bridge doesn’t get destroyed! Look at the bright side is what I’m saying here.

So after all the waiting, is this movie worth seeing? Sort of. It’s insanely hard to make a good movie out of a video game (Detective Pikachu last year being the first to pull off the feat as far as I’m concerned), mostly because the longform narratives and game formats really don’t lend themselves to 90-minute adaptations. As such, studios have to make up real-world reasons for these characters to exist and interact, and often that leads to cliché-heavy, “safe” adventures that don’t really stand up to scrutiny. But I’ve seen a lot worse than this. Hell, one of the few regrets in my life – true story – is that I passed up the opportunity to see Jurassic Park in the theatres for Super Mario Bros. back in 1993. I still weep for what Bob Hoskins had to go through in that movie, and he’s been dead for years.

This isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not exactly good either. The best I can say is that it has potential, and it wouldn’t have even had that if Paramount hadn’t heard our reactions and gone back to the drawing board on Sonic’s design. The film never really feels like a movie version of a Sonic game, and there are a lot of problems with the script. But at the same time, you can’t really fault it too much because the studio showed us that they actually give a damn about how we receive the product. It’s still an economic concern rather than artistic (the credits tease a potential sequel without knowing how well the current film will perform), but it’s a start. Still, I think you can safely wait until it’s out on video or digital. Hell, watch it on your gaming console, cause that’s a thing.

Grade: C+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What video games do you think could make good movies? If you marry someone with one of Sonic’s rings, does their finger go to another planet? Let me know!

2 thoughts on “Not Quite in the (Green Hill) Zone – Sonic the Hedgehog

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