If you’re still looking for the first great film adaptation of a video game, I regret to inform you that Sonic the Hedgehog is not it. While the title character certainly looks far better than his horrifying first iteration, the overall film fits neatly into a safe buddy, road-trip comedy that kids can enjoy with a recognizable video game mascot being silly. While some video game properties have started to lean into their weirdness like Pokemon: Detective Pikachu and The Angry Birds Movie, Jeff Fowler‘s adaptation works to be as palatable as possible, and on that level, it works. There’s nothing offensively bad or outlandish about Sonic, but it’s a movie that rarely takes any chances either, and you’re left wondering what was so captivating about this character in the first place.
Sonic the Hedgehog (voiced by Ben Schwartz) comes from a dimension that heavily resembles his popular 1991 video game, but when masked bad guys come after him because of his super speed ability, he uses his magic rings to jump to a new world. Ten years later, he’s been hiding out on Earth, specifically in Green Hills, Montana. When Sonic accidentally causes an energy surge from his speed, he gets on the radar of the government and the nefarious Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey). Sonic goes to the home of a local cop, Tom (James Marsden), but accidentally opens a portal that causes his rings to land on top of a building in San Francisco. Sonic and Tom must make their way from Green Hills to San Francisco while avoiding Robotnik and his powerful drone technology.
The opening minutes of Sonic are the most promising when the Paramount logo is surrounded by rings, the music plays a variation on the Green Hill Zone from the games, and we’re taken into the checker-box, loop-de-loop world of Sonic’s home. And then less than five minutes in, the film abandons that world to take us to Small Town, USA. Understandably, there are budget limitations and the budget went into Sonic (and probably cost more when he had to be redesigned to be cuddly instead of grotesque). But moving the action to our world makes Sonic less interesting. The character becomes more mundane and trapped by our conveniences (He likes comic books! He has a beanbag chair!) rather than the weirdness of his video game where woodland creatures are trapped in robots and power-ups are stashed in computer monitors.
To be fair, translating a 90s platformer to a feature-length film is exceptionally tough, and no studio wants to repeat the mistakes of the Super Mario Bros. movie. But Sonic the Hedgehog swings too far in the other director so that it’s major accomplishment is adequacy. Sonic is funny and cute. His arc is that being on the run has made him lonely, so his friendship with Tom is important. They’re a mismatched pair who learn to care for each other. And as far as PG family films go, that’s good enough. The kids at my screening were very much on board, and parents should feel comfortable watching this picture with their little ones.
For me, the biggest highlight of Sonic the Hedgehog comes not from the nostalgia I have for the Sonic games, but the nostalgia I have for Jim Carrey. When I was a pre-teen, Carrey was my hero. I loved the way he would throw his entire face and body into a delightfully immature performance. We eventually learned that Carrey had acting range, but he spent most of the 2010s eschewing his typically broad performance to varying levels of success. Carrey seemed to consciously desire credibility as an actor, which meant moving away from hamming it up. The thing is—Carrey’s really good at hamming it up! I’m sure for him it’s not much of a challenge, and perhaps he even finds it unrewarding, but my biggest laughs in this movie came from Carrey doing his thing. It may not have been particularly new or revolutionary for him, but it was oddly comforting, especially when he hadn’t approached a character in this way since 2013’s The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. I’m not saying I only want this Carrey performance from now on, but it works to chew the scenery as the villain in a movie where the hero is a cartoon.
Sadly, the rest of Sonic the Hedgehog doesn’t share the manic energy that Sonic and Robotnik bring to the picture. They’re off in something that’s sillier and goofier, but the overall movie demands that they play by the beats of a standard buddy picture/road trip comedy. That formula is fine for what it is, and it gets the job done here, but I wish the filmmakers had taken a bigger, more imaginative swing than settling for just using the Sonic IP, stuffing him into a one-size-fits-all narrative, and calling it a day.