The history of live-action Hollywood adaptations of videogame franchises has been a bumpy and mostly disappointing one. From the first head-scratching attempt in 1993 with “Super Mario Bros.” by Disney’s Hollywood Pictures label and Buena Vista distribution, major studios have tried again and again to bring videogame magic to the screen with mixed results. Some are critically favored by the gamer fandom, even if they did not make much box office-wise; others simply did not try hard. Not until last year did Warner Bros. score a significant critical and financial success with “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu,” proving that videogame movies, when done right and with love, can be box office juggernauts.
Now, Sega, longtime retro console rival of the home platform for “Pokémon,” Nintendo, is not going to take that lying down. They have been developing plans for a big-budget movie about their super-speedster mascot videogame character “Sonic the Hedgehog,” one that has taken decades and several handovers between studios, from MGM to Sony-Columbia Pictures to finally, Paramount. Then Paramount’s planned November 2019 premiere was pushed back to this month after massive criticism of the main character’s CGI design spurred them to spend months redoing the hero to take more after his videogame looks. The results look more than worth it.
A tactic that some videogame adaptations do, one from other non-live-action pop franchises in fact, is to take the characters at minimum, if they are from a fantastical setting, and transplant them onto the “real” present-day world. This was done by Cannon Films in their 1987 “Masters of the Universe” movie about Mattel’s “He-Man” toy line. So with Paramount and director Jeff Fowler, they chart a course for Sonic (Ben Schwartz), a blue-furred anthropomorphic hedgehog with super speed to transfer from his picturesque (and rather videogame-accurate) island home to Earth.
Forced to hide from hostile parties that want to capture him for his speedy abilities, Sonic flees his childhood refuge using a bagful of golden rings able to create portals between worlds (another repurposed gameplay mechanic) to hide out at the forested surroundings of the town of Green Hills, Montana. In the decade he lives there, out of sight but close at hand, he grows to appreciate the townspeople particularly local sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) and his veterinarian wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter). But years of being forced to keep his head down ultimately boil over, causing a power explosion from a distraught Sonic to affect the Pacific Northwest US.
With no clues as to what happened and suspecting a terrorist plot, the Pentagon sends a hyper-competent albeit ambitious and malevolent scientific researcher, Dr. Ivo Robotnik, to investigate. Played to absolute zany hilarity by comedy legend Jim Carrey, Robotnik wreaks havoc on Sonic’s quiet life with his various lethally-armed egg-shaped drones. So he is forced to engage Tom’s assistance to get him to San Francisco, after an earlier mishap with Sonic’s power rings caused him to drop the bag – and his only means of interplanetary escape – somewhere in that city.
When discussing “Sonic the Hedgehog” beyond story terms, one cannot avoid mentioning a masterful move undertaken by Paramount Pictures following the lackluster reception to the film’s first trailer in early 2019. Sonic looked too different from his videogame incarnation, with many franchise fans “disgusted” at how, for example, his eyes looked. That the studio actually listened to the criticism, delayed the movie by a few months and released a new trailer with notable fixes to Sonic’s looks was nothing short of spectacular. And one can certainly appreciate how seamlessly the animated hedgehog integrates into his real-life surroundings, better than Robotnik’s egg-drones and later secret weapon.
Comedian Ben Schwartz knocks Sonic’s voice out of the park and proves himself to be a keeper for the hedgehog’s vocals at par with his animation and videogame portrayers. James Marsden is also a delight for his good-hearted Sheriff Wachowski the “Donut Lord,” making a nice foil to Sonic on their road trip from Green Hills to San Francisco. Both also make great arch-enemies banter with Jim Carrey’s Robotnik, on the sometimes-funny sometimes-tense conversations inserted between the incredible action sequences with great high-speed motion depictions. Tom Holkeborg also deserves thanks from the gamer community for translating certain 16-bit ditties from the videogames into splendid scoring.
To conclude, while “Sonic the Hedgehog” is as minimal in story meat as videogame adaptations go by no means does it not ruin the quality of this production. The behind-the-scenes fix-up done by Paramount just to get the CGI main character right is testament to how this film is both a solid movie and love letter to its source franchise in one. And even if one never has seen the “Sonic” cartoons or played the games from the original Sega Genesis to the later consoles, they owe this movie at least one good watch to know it is wonderful stuff.
Image courtesy of Hollywood Reporter