Gamers of every generation and gender will like “Sonic the Hedgehog” enough to put a ring on it. Sega’s enduring video game franchise gets a smashing live-action graphical upgrade courtesy of visual effects artist and debut filmmaker, Jeff Fowler. Gone are the hideous visuals of first trailer yesteryear. Here to stay is the same colorful, digitized blue hedgehog animation imprinted in fond memory, even for some with hands too small to comfortably hold a SEGA Genesis controller. The movie’s simple yet family-affirming narrative doesn’t need to do much to race ahead of the video game movie adaptation pack. “Sonic the Hedgehog” respects its source material but propels its disreputable genre forward by concocting a similar buddy-comedy formula to Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted.” The heartwarming results widen the accessibility of Sonic lore, thereby strengthening an already impressive pop culture legacy.
Watching this iteration makes fans realize that not a lot is known about Sonic’s backstory. All anyone cared about was collecting rings and zipping through stages constructed like organic roller coaster loops. It turns out that Sonic is a hot commodity of prized power in every universe. His innate supply of electricity allows him to run at the speed of light, but in the wrong hands that energy can be harnessed for world domination. As such, Sonic is marked for scientific dissection at birth. When mercenaries attack the fledgling hedgehog on his native planet, his owl guardian forces him to flee to a new dimension. With a handy bag of rings in tow, baby Sonic uses the jeweled technology to teleport between worlds and winds up in Green Hills, Montana.
Sonic grows up exercising Spielbergian alien fascination with Earthling society, one which takes him no time at all to proudly call home. Voice actor Ben Schwartz imbues Sonic with child-like excitement and vocal affinity for American pop culture. Little personal touches like Sonic consuming “The Flash” comic books symbolize the power of superhero iconography to a kid in need of belonging.
The touching surprise is how writers Pat Casey and Josh Miller delicately spawn the vital message that loneliness – often caused by intolerance of uncontrollable differences – can inflict severe trauma. Sonic’s endearing qualities of talking to himself all the time and fumbling social cues would be viewed as worrisome in any other scenario. Here, his inept ability to interact with humans stems from living such an isolated childhood. Once those interpersonal connections are formed, his ramblings become an act of liberation. Sonic is the rare leading hero whose infectious enthusiasm overshadows having an annoying-sidekick personality.
When Sonic’s emotional meltdown causes a power outage throughout Green Hills and beyond, he draws the attention of town sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) and government-hired scientist turned phenomena investigator, Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey). Despite initially working on the same side of the law, the two couldn’t be further apart in handling this innocent case of alien immigration. Marsden, who delivers every ounce of “movie star” charisma everyone assumed was kept bottled up, plays the upstanding local cop we’ve almost forgotten exists.
Hoping to experience real crime-fighting action with a transfer to the San Francisco Police Department, Marsden’s career move is dashed thanks to his fast and furious new furball of a friend. Wachowski – affectionately referred to by Sonic as “Donut Lord” – is reluctant to aid Sonic after he accidentally teleports his rings to the bay area metropolis. However, the reticence soon evolves into the best anthropomorphic bromance since Roger Rabbit and Detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins).
Carrey’s maniacal portrayal of Robotnik takes “mad scientist” villainy to the highest echelon of parody. Carrey lets his face muscles and hand choreography carry the weight of Robotnik’s egomania. Without the unwavering obsequiousness of his personal assistant, Agent Stone (Lee Majdoub), Robotnik’s antics would get stale instead of elicit fresh bellyaches of laughter. Carrey is given a modicum of screen time to make theatrical impact, but thankfully disappears enough to not overstay his welcome. Robotnick’s unflappable eccentricity is bound to polarize audiences. When a gag or joke lands, it pile drives; when it misses, the veteran comedy icon looks like a stand-up comedian practicing his act on an unresponsive mirror. Overall, the performance lands in the favorable column, but it’s not the strong deflector of early detraction that Will Smith accomplished last year with “Aladdin.”
Unexpected of all is how “Sonic the Hedgehog” subtly inserts adult commentary on political division and race relations. For instance, there’s a bar fight sequence where Sonic discovers people he thought seemed awesome from afar — because of their rowdiness and hardcore reputation — might actually be fundamentally opposed to his presence in America.
Furthermore, Wachowski, a white cop from a predominantly red state, is married to a black veterinarian named Maddie, played by the excellent Tika Sumpter. Despite the pair’s undisputed chemistry and equitable relationship dynamic, Maddie’s sister from California, Rachel (Natasha Rothwell) is distrusting of her brother-in-law, her constant suspicion of his motives a frequent source of humor. Yet knowing the homicidal atrocities police officers commit towards people of color, especially young black men, it makes sense why Rachel would have major concerns and trepidation around Wachowski. Because he’s the rare unprejudiced white police officer, there seems to be a politically coded argument that Tom Wachowski is better off staying where he is at to keep his community from becoming another tragic instance of racism pervading criminal justice.
While the road-trip saga might be slight and the “science-is-evil” cautionary angle is outdated, “Sonic the Hedgehog” launches a promising new franchise that spins perpetual fun and even carries resonating themes for all ages. James Marsden churns out one of the most convincing performances to ever falsely interact with a CGI-based character. His banter with Schwartz is so breezy and effortless that it almost seems uncannily predestined. With an ending and post-credit scene that hint at a sequel bound to surpass its predecessor, this live-action remastering of a classic runs giant planetary rings around previous video game movies.
“Sonic the Hedgehog” is distributed by Paramount Pictures and will release nationwide on Friday, Feb. 14, 2020.