Am I wrong, or was Sonic the Hedgehog always supposed to be a tiny bit of an asshole?
Not an all-out P.O.S., to be clear; we were definitely meant to root for the little guy. But he had a Gingerbread Man vibe: Can’t catch me. A fast, furious little fiend: a 16-bit pixel-hero for the backward-cap MTV generation. On the posters for his games, he always had a finger raised in our direction, in defiance. Pointer finger in practice, middle finger in spirit—at least to adolescent me. It always felt like a playful bit of chastisement for anyone trying to keep up with him, a dare to attempt exactly that.
The opening notes of Jeff Fowler’s Sonic the Hedgehog film recall that idea of the beloved ‘90s character. I’ll give the movie that much. Now come the demerits—starting with an unfortunate nod toward contemporary trends, that tedious gloss of 21st-century ironic humor that isn’t really funny anymore. Friends, this is a record-scratch, freeze-frame, “I bet you’re wondering how I got here” sort of movie, with a voiceover (by Ben Schwartz, as Sonic) that indicates above all how much movie executives have learned from Deadpool’s box office returns. Someone’s taking notes. This Sonic shares a little bit of that wry persona mixed with a lot of gee-whiz, restless energy, the consequence of being an alien hiding out on earth. Ultimately, to the movie’s credit, he’s less of a Bro than a Baby Bro.
Because this Sonic is also a kid’s movie. If I hadn’t known that walking in, the trailers that played before the film would have been their own lesson: a trailer for a new baby Scooby Doo movie, another for a new baby Minions, and another for baby Spongebob (or is that just how he always looks?). Sonic itself drives the point home, of course. There’s big feelings, big emotional pivots, big lessons: about friendship, about loneliness, about whether we’ll ever let Jim Carrey be great again. Sonic—a character whose original backstory (including a girlfriend named Madonna!) was rightly scrapped back in the ‘90s—here has all measure of issues, all meant to move and overwhelm kids. That’s great!
If you’re me, though, you’re seeing this—seeing Sonic play a one-man baseball game at night because he has no friends, for example, and peering into peoples’ windows to watch TV over their shoulders—and thinking back to the debacle of the movie’s first trailer. Response to that trailer is the reason we’re getting this movie in February 2020 and not November 2019, as was originally planned. We (rightly) freaked: at the snout-like little mouth, the comparatively small eyes, the sense that Sonic was a monkey in a Halloween costume, some escaped experiment from Area 51 that even die-hard Ufologists might prefer we keep caged.
You look back to that character design… then you look at this final movie… and you wonder how anyone thought the original plan was going to work. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the idea of a Sonic the Hedgehog film full of puppy-eyes and a plot as emotionally circular as a best friend bracelet, rather than the adventuresome hijinks familiar from the video game. Both versions are credible as kid movies; one—the one we got—is more tedious than the other. On the other hand, I’m having a fun time imagining that same, kid-friendly movie starring a Sonic who looks like a chain-smoking, angry little man in dirty Sonic pajamas. If we had to get this sappy tear-fest version of the story, I would have preferred to stick with pajama guy, for the laughs.