Running for That Brass Ring of Mediocrity
DIRECTED BY JEFF FOWLER/2020
I may be thoroughly unschooled in the ways and means and history of Sonic the Hedgehog, but I do know this: the thing’s got legs.
By which I mean, not the stick-like, shoe-wearing appendages of the zippy blue critter. (Though, said legs do carry him far and fast at speeds around 200 miles per hour). But what I do know is this: In my many years as a clerk in a comic book shop, the Sonic the Hedgehog comic book would always, always sell out. We may’ve only stocked two copies of every new issue, but in any case, it’s quiet departure was assured in a way surpassing that of the ever-popular Uncanny X-Men, or later, Avengers. By the time my prolonged tenure in that non-profession finally ended, that darn Sonic comic book had numbered into the hundreds. Longevity and fan loyalty seems to have never been an issue for this video game-based property.
How that longevity and loyalty translates to the silver screen in the 2020, though, is anyone’s guess. Part of that floating-in-the-air blinking question mark is the unavoidable fact that Sonic, however popular the little blue devil may or may not be, cannot outrun the fact that he’s the star of the latest video game movie. And the track record of said movie adaptations bear the inverse track record of the aforementioned Sonic comic book. Even in this current effects-driven/franchise-obsessed era of films (if video game movies should flourish anywhere at any time, it’d be here), decades of crash-and-burn attempts to bridge the addictive thrill of electronic gaming with the conventional story-bound n’ action expectations of contemporary mainstream filmmaking have all but told the garish tale: video games and movies are, to put it palatably, not two great tastes that taste great together.
So I’ve established that video game movies suck. (Not exactly a news flash, but regurgitation is the name of the game in all this). I suppose then that “the angle” here must be that director (with a history in animation) Jeff Fowler’s Sonic the Hedgehog does not. Yes, in due time it will inevitably be lumped into that notorious terminal heap with the likes of even the sub-genre’s better efforts- Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, whatever else you might’ve tolerated. But in the crucial moment- that torn-ticket butts-in-seats/boots-on-the-ground time wherein you’ve committed to giving this thing a try- I must report that Sonic the Hedgehog is not unfun. It is not altogether poor, it is not horrendously loud and grating. It is not headache inducing and is nowhere near mind-numbing. And I for one, a bedraggled father of four having spent my time in the trenches of “family films” facing down too many far worse assaults, will gladly take it.
What Sonic the Hedgehog isn’t, however, is original. It hasn’t a single new idea in its stringy little body. Like that “frozen time” effect they used for the high-speed effects of Quicksilver’s shenanigans in X-Men movies? Here it is! Even before the movie proper even gets going, there’s the new Sega films logo, a dead-on-arrival-ringer for the Marvel Studios logo version 1.0. From the way the letters unfold to the momentary collage of colorful characters to the same friggin exact shade of red, it’s enough to make even an open minded fourteen-year-old viewer who’s not yet seen it all sit back with a mock-inquisitive “Hmmmmm.” (Again, this one’s from personal experience, having brought my kids to the screening). Does this mean we’ve entered the centralized ground zero of some sort of hoped-for “Sega shared cinematic universe”…? Sega Cinematic Universe, meet The Dark Universe.
In the meantime, here’s what we’ve got: Ben Schwartz, apparently known for being funny on TV, is the voice of the animated titular space-hog in this otherwise live-action affair. Rendered furry but mostly game-accurate (At least, game-accurate enough? This comes following a geek furor last year at an unveiled first version of the big-screen Sonic; an outcry that resulted in an extensive character re-rendering and a pushed-back release date.) and opposite to James Marsden’s (X-Men’s first Cyclops; demoted) small town cop straight man, the two must team-up to foil a vaguely-written whackadoodle super-villain played to the hilt by Jim Carrey. Carrey, sparing no charisma whatsoever, understands exactly why he was hired for this nonsense. His performance is a manic throwback to his comedic glory days of two and half decades ago, an accomplished if thankless passed-his-prime turn evoking every second of Steve Martin in 2003’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action.
Carrey is Eggman- or is it Robotnik?- a high-tech government operative with a sad-sack bad-guy origin story. He’s funny. He’s got a silly mustache. But four days after seeing the movie, I must confess that I have no memory of why the heck Carrey’s character is so driven in his villainy, nor what the macguffin might’ve been. (Something to do with magic rings that transport people Doctor Strange style?) Anyhow, who cares. It’s all a lot of good-natured running around and snappy quips and small-town affection versus big bad Big City heartlessness (take that, San Francisco!) and playing on a presumed audience fear of drone technology. (Sorry Sonic, Spider-Man: Far From Home beat you to it).
They run around (the main character at characteristically high speeds), things go boom, the kids are entertained, and it’s not horrible. If your hopes and expectations going into Sonic the Hedgehog were anything surpassing that, you’re looking in the wrong place, and may’ve been playing too many video games. With Sonic depicted reading a stack of vintage Flash comic books, even the filmmakers clearly understand the creatively tired, derivative nature of the movie they’ve stitched together. Is this enough for the multigenerational lots of Sonic fans? Beats me. I’d hope not. But, maybe? (My younger children liked it. My fourteen-year-old shrugged. “It’s fine”). It is what it is, enjoy it or don’t bother. Ten minutes out from the film having ended, it won’t matter at all. But there’s this: Sonic manages what last year’s far larger and similarly conceived Pokémon Detective Pikachu utterly failed at: playing well.