Having been part of a generation that grew up with Sonic games and cartoons, I remember what it was like feeling like you were friends with an imaginary character.
Now I was fully aware Sonic didn’t exist (don’t judge me!), but the whole point of his vibe was to be an affable dude with attitude without being too edgy: an ideal buddy you could hang with that serves the greater good. That core character trait is preserved in the Sonic film, which never aims for more than standard, turn-your-brain-off family fun.
Yes, this is the kind of kids movie that starts with a ::record scratch: “ so you’re probably wondering how I got myself into this crazy situation?!” in media res trope: and not in a clever way. It’s the kind of family flick that has to spell out what “EMP” stands for just in case it flew over some people’s heads. It’s the sort of thing that could have by all accounts been a complete disaster but actually manages to follow a coherent arc that mostly hammers in on a relatable key theme of friendship and the pain of being alone.
Starting us off in the fictional other-worldly Sonic universe (where animals roam free and a blue hedgehog isn’t an anomaly) was smart. It gives the fans what they want upfront, while occasionally sprinkling Sonic media and game references in (a few of which are fairly subtle and clever). Establishing that Sonic is “different” and has the potential to be great is also a fine go-to family film arc. It never stretches too far beyond a specific formula, but by that same logic it also never spreads itself too thin.
In a way, it feels so heavily blueprinted and calculated, but Ben Schwartz (who voices Sonic) and Jim Carrey (who plays his live-action foil, Dr. Robotnik) carry this film. James Marsden does what James Marsden does what’s expected of him: to look and act likable. That’s pretty much all he needs to do. Carrey channels his inner Ace Ventura (for better or worse, depending on how you feel those films hold up) in a way that we really haven’t seen much recently. It’s great and just so weird. How they managed to convince him to take this role is beyond me but not many people could have pulled it off the way he did.
Similarly, Schwartz is very much playing a more reserved Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Rec: a loveable fool. He’s perfect for the part his constant energy keeps the film moving. And move it does! After the quick aforementioned setup, Sonic is whisked away to Earth, where he “observes” (read: stalks) Marsden’s character and his wife for “years,” before Robotnik forces him out of hiding. This all happens rather quickly before it becomes a buddy comedy road film.
From there Marsden (it’s really hard to call him “Tom” by the way, and not just James Marsden) and Sonic take a road trip to San Francisco, while bonding and battling Robotnik along the way. That’s basically the extent of the narrative, and you know what? It works. A lot of credit goes to the VFX team that redesigned Sonic from the Frankenstein’s monster he was in the debut trailer to something that resembles the character we know today, to help Schwartz sell his performance through the lens of an emotive animated creature.
Make no mistake: Sonic the Hedgehog is still a very simple family film. It could have been funnier, but it’s cute and has a good message for kids. Some might find that sort of filmmaking cynical in that it’s designed to be so appealing, but I appreciate the lack of edge and feel like we’re finally moving into an era where game films try to capture some semblance of simple joy.