In “A Christmas Story” (1983), Ralphie’s parents hid his Red Ryder B.B. gun behind a desk to find as a bonus after his other Christmas presents had been opened.
It was with similar surprise that my parents hid a Sega Genesis, leading to countless hours mashing buttons playing “Sonic the Hedgehog” (1991), speeding through 16-bit landscapes to grab gold rings with that catchy Nakamura music looping in our heads.
Still, the idea of turning a 29-year-old video game into a feature-length movie seemed like a fool’s errand, especially when early trailers created such backlash over Sonic’s creepy chompers that the studio delayed its release for months to redesign the hero.
Now, the film has arrived — and it’s actually not bad. It’s OK, it’s fine, it’s tolerable. It’s the type of family romp that benefits from low expectations, keeps the kids engaged and finds a few chuckles for parents, but one you’ll forget pretty quickly afterward.
The story is set in the small town of Green Hills, Montana, which Sonic calls home after escaping his extraterrestrial planet. He now lives undetected, running so fast that humans can’t see him, a lonely existence where he can only watch daily life from afar.
His chance for friendship finally comes in the form of town sheriff Tom Wachowski, who is planning a move to the San Francisco Police Department. That is until Sonic causes a power surge that alerts the U.S. Department of Defense, which hires mad scientist Dr. Robotnik to hunt down the source and eliminate Sonic by any means necessary.
Voiced by Ben Schwartz (“Parks and Recreation”), Sonic is a cartoon version of Ferris Bueller, wisecracking yet lovable. His visual design is vastly improved, removing the sharp fangs and mangy hair in favor of a round open mouth and family-friendly fur.
He’s also given an endearing motive of seeking friendship in a world that doesn’t grasp his supersonic superpowers. It’s not that they won’t understand, it’s that he’s scared to even put himself out there, a theme which so many viewers will empathize with.
Enter James Marsden (“Enchanted”) as the restless sheriff whose character arc finds him wanting to leave his little town and “make it” in a big city like San Francisco. His veterinarian wife is played by Tika Sumpter (“Southside With You”), who encourages his dreams but reminds him home is where the heart is, even if it’s the simple life.
However, it’s the cosmic comedy treat of Jim Carrey who steals the show as the mustache-twirling Dr. Robotnik, his first role in four years. It’s great seeing him back with his rubber-faced expressions, elastic body movements and signature dialogue delivery as he commands an army of drones and rags on Lee Majdoub’s henchman.
Director Jeff Fowler smartly lets Carrey do his thing, while maintaining a self-aware tone like “Deadpool” director Tim Miller, with whom Fowler co-directed the Oscar-nominated animated short “Gopher Broke” (2004). Fowler takes a cue from Miller as Sonic opens by talking to the audience mid-action, then rewinds to start the story.
From a visual standpoint, Fowler delivers shiny blue quills as cool clues to Sonic’s whereabouts and turns giant gold rings into warp holes a la “Stargate” (1994). Best is a creative baseball sequence where Sonic takes the field alone under the lights to play an inning against himself by sprinting back and forth between all nine positions.
On the flip side, other sequences suffer from exposure in the trailer, namely Sonic’s lightning-quick detour to a giant rubber-band ball, only to report back with an armful of souvenirs to play paddle ball in the passenger seat. As he asks, “Are we there yet?” you’ll wonder why he doesn’t just grab Marsden by the hand and race ahead.
That’s not the only logical inconsistency in the script. At one point, Sonic throws a warp ring to save humans from falling to their death, but as Sonic smashes against the concrete, he brushes off the pain and moves on. Can he really survive such a fall?
While Sonic casually endures certain pain, there are one too many other moments where he lies on the ground motionless after giant explosions. We understand that screenwriters Patrick Casey and Josh Miller are playing our emotions, but the near-death fake-out can really only work once in a screenplay before feeling overplayed.
Similarly, there’s an over reliance on the slow-motion “bullet time” trick we saw with Quicksilver in “X-Men” where the humans freeze like cardboard cutouts while the lightning-fast hero zips around and alters their surroundings. Surely, Sonic is tailor-made for such a gimmick, but it doesn’t feel as fresh as when we saw it in “X-Men.”
As the credits roll, you may leave with an amused smile, but not the emotional surge to cheer for time well spent. The post-credit sequence deflates the experience even more, as Carrey makes a clever pun, then repeats it in an over-the-top shout to the heavens.
Don’t hold your breath for Sonic’s sidekick Tails to appear. You’ll likely have to wait for the sequel in “Sonic 2,” followed by Knuckles in “Sonic 3.” And that’s the most troubling thought. Like Marvel, the Sega logo shows a collage of Sega games for future movies.
As much as we all loved playing the video games, it was unbearable to watch Bob Hoskins’ “Super Mario Bros.” (1993) and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s “Street Fighter” (1994). “Sonic the Hedgehog” runs circles around those flops, but fresh ideas are always better than trotting out old properties, much to Hollywood’s formulaic chagrin.
Game over? Hardly.
It’s only the beginning.