***WARNING! The following contains certain spoilers for Sonic the Hedgehog!***
Video game adaptations have gotten a bad rap over the years, but it finally seems like Hollywood is figuring out how to make them the right way. It's about finding a delicate balance between nostalgia (in the form of fan service, of course) and trying new things.
If you can strike a good mix between the two and are unafraid to step outside the (Green Hill) zone of familiarity, then ain't nothing gonna break your stride, nobody gonna slow you down.
The latest video game movie to get this very, very right is Sonic the Hedgehog, a live-action romp starring Sega's iconic blue-quilled speedster (voiced by Ben Schwartz in this iteration).
Is that Matthew Wilder reference making sense now?!
Funnily enough, the film had a bunch of factors working against its success. As you probably recall from last year, there was an overwhelmingly negative backlash to Sonic's original, more human-looking aesthetic.
In the end, Paramount delayed the project's theatrical release by three months to allow for an entire overhaul of the titular character's CG design.
While I didn't mind much either way at the time, I can't deny that the updated and more classic look ended up being a crucial element that works in the project's favor.
That homespun character design roots the story in a comforting blankie of nostalgia, essentially pacifying the audience before trekking into unknown territory. What could have gone horribly wrong, actually made things so much better.
I'm sure a good chunk of the update credit lies with director Jeff Fowler, an Oscar-nominated veteran of animation and visual effects. Despite the fact that he's making his feature-length debut here, you can imagine that the technically-trained filmmaker knew just what the CG renovation required in order to please fans. Then there's the fact that “New Sonic” freakin' is adorable and will sell loads of licensed tie-in merch.
Make no mistake about it: Sonic the Hedgehog isn't afraid to get a little weird with its source material. Looking at the script by Pat Casey and Josh Miller, you've got a Wreck-It-Ralph-Esque playfulness and reverence that knows when to stay rooted in familiarity and when to get a little experimental.
You see, Sonic is an alien (yep, a bona fide E.T.) from another planet that resembles the Green Hill Zone map in the original game. When other beings seek to control his speeding abilities, he must flee to Earth with the use of his trusty golden rings.
Like the Sling Rings in the Doctor Strange universe, these objects allow Sonic to travel between space-time. The rings are yet another iconic fixture of the games that are smartly re-contextualized within the needs of the film's narrative. They serve a purpose beyond the expected fan service.
But don't worry, there's plenty of that, too—from his famous red and white sneakers; to his love for chili dogs; to his catchphrase of”Gotta go fast!” It's all there. Just like the rings, these little bits of iconography pop up naturally and help contribute to Sonic's origin story on our planet.
Pleasing fans is easy, but if you can nourish them—and storytelling in general—with their own nostalgia, that's even better.
On Earth, Sonic makes his home in Green Hills, Montana (har har), setting up a little den of sorts that comes complete with a comfy bean bag chair, a ping pong table (he's so fast, he can play against himself), and a stack of DC Flash comics.
As I wrote on Twitter (see below), Schwartz's voiceover performance is iconic in the making. Like Robin Williams did for the Genie in Disney's Aladdin, he's going to define this character for an entire generation of kids. And I don't just say that because Sonic and the Genie are both blue, although they are.
They are both blue beings of unimaginable power, who crack jokes and pop culture references at the speed of sound.
Had Sonic done nothing beyond name-dropping (and/or impersonating characters from) Star Wars, Speed, and Fast & Furious, I wouldn't be praising this interpretation of the character as much as I am. It's the pathos and sincerity Schwartz infuses into those lulls between the alien hedgehog's more manic moments that makes the movie so enjoyable to watch. In short, he gets the balance of comedy and emotion just right, effectively making the character his own.
That's what Williams did in Aladdin and, more generally, it's what any great actor should be able to do with a meaty role such as this.
Since catching the film at a press screening over the weekend, I've been racking my brain to think of someone else who could have voiced the titular protagonist instead of Schwartz, and no one else comes to mind. That, right there, is a sign of perfect casting.
Speaking of perfect casting, the production also got Jim Carrey to play the film's main antagonist, Dr. Ivo Robotnik (aka Dr. Eggman). Again, no one else could have portrayed the nefarious, megalomaniacal, egotistical, and machine-loving government scientist who seeks to harness Sonic's speedy powers for world domination. Also making the character his own, Carrey animates mustachioed villain (his facial hair is the kind you'd expect to see twirling on an Old West baddie tying a damsel to some train tracks) with the best facial ticks and verbal deliveries of Ace Ventura, the Grinch, and Hank Evans.
Simply put, Ivo is just as much an interesting and versatile as the CG alien he's chasing.
It is an indescribable joy to Carrey and his unpredictably silly/over-the-top sensibilities back in the blockbuster limelight where they so rightfully belong. Carrey is Robotnik and steals every single scene in which he appears and since this is an origin story, we've only just scratched the surface of how insane he can become
Ok, so by this point you're probably wondering about the plot, right? Well, things kick into high gear when Sonic's electrified quills cause a major blackout, thus drawing the attention of the U.S. government, which, in turn, reluctantly brings in Robotnik.
Now on the run and looking to teleport to a lonely planet full of mushrooms, Sonic turns to the small town's sheriff Tom Wachowski (Westworld‘s James Marsden) for help. This introduces a nice little Roger Rabbit-type element into the story, as Sonic and Tom hit the road to find the former's bag of missing teleportation rings.
Very much the Eddie Valiant in this oddball relationship, Tom (as well as his wife, Maddie, played by Mixed-ish‘s Tika Sumpter) helps cut through a lot of the insanity espoused by Sonic and Robotnik.
Along the way, Sonic gets two really entertaining Quicksilver moments (think: X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse) where he messes with everyone living in the regularly-paced world. As they get into barroom brawls and battle Robotnik's deadly and Russian nesting doll-like machines, Sonic and Tom teach each other valuable lessons about running away from home and the ones you love.
Always capable onscreen, Marsden is totally believable as the serious adult in the room. Nevertheless, I would've liked to see more anger on Tom's part when his chances at a better job in San Francisco are put in jeopardy after he becomes a national fugitive for harboring Sonic.
It would have added a lot more weight to the third act (where Sonic finds himself in lethal danger) if Wachowski sent the hedgehog away, only for the pair to reconcile later on as stronger friends. As it is in the final cut, Tom never really shows much anxiety over his life falling to pieces.
Looking at the supporting cast, nearly everyone else pales in comparison to Schwartz and Carrey.
Neal McDonough (Project Blue Book) is woefully misused as Major Bennington, a soldier who is briefly belittled by Robotnik before disappearing entirely. The Mandalorian‘s Adam Pally (or as I like to call him, “T.J. Miller Lite”) gets a few shining moments as Tom's dim-witted, albeit good-natured, deputy. Natasha Rothwell is also notable for her small comedic role as Tom's disapproving sister-in-law.
Oh, and make sure you sit through the end titles because the movie has two mid-credits scenes, the second of which will blow your damn mind to smithereens. Of course, the scene in question is really meant to set up a sequel and a possible franchise, but I'm pretty sure that this is the first bonus sequence outside of a Marvel movie that really got me excited for the possibility of a larger universe.
There is actual potential here for a slew of follow-ups and spinoffs.
Besides that, though, the credits are still enjoyable to sit through, thanks to some old school SEGA animation and a catchy original song (titled “Speed Me Up”) produced just for the film. It's expertly performed by Wiz Khalifa, Ty Dolla $ign, Lil Yachty, and Sueco the Child.
All in all, Sonic the Hedgehog is a surprisingly unexpected delight that has more on its mind than simply pandering to children or making money. Real thought (what a concept!) went into this project, which is a fun ride that feels like a throwback to the road trip and buddy comedies of yesteryear.
Aside from Tom's arc, my only real complaint is the use of some immature bathroom humor and jokes that will ultimately date the film (if you ever wanted to see Sonic do the “Floss” dance, you're in luck), but at the same time, I realize that this is a movie meant for demographics both young and old.
I can overlook those small faults in the context of a greater whole. Sonic moves at a rather brisk pace, sure, but it also knows when to slow down and smell the chili dogs.
Sonic the Hedgehog sprints into theaters everywhere this Friday (Feb. 14).