Review: Wait a minute… the Sonic: The Hedgehog movie is actually good?

The first few Sonic: The Hedgehog movie trailers didn’t leave a good impression. Between Sonic’s nightmare fuel inducing mode and the focus on seemingly anything but the Blue Blur himself, fans pretty much figured that this was going to be yet another lazy cash-in video game adaptation that hopes to make big bucks off its fanbase while doing nothing to honor its original IP.

So I walked into Sonic: The Hedgehog ready to blast it to pieces and, hopefully, get a few good memes out the process. I walked out of Sonic: The Hedgehog going “Man, I hope they make a sequel!”

Sonic actually has a strange advantage when it comes to adaptations. He never had one solid canon. The Sega canon is already split and wonky due to time travel. There’s the old Archie comics canon, the new comics canon, the Saturday morning canon, the Sonic Boom canon, there were several anime adaptations, American cartoon adaptations, random side games where Sonic ended up in Arabian Nights or Arthurian Legend, and then there was that one time that Sonic kissed a human princess and was like, a vessel for a god or something.

Sonic has had some weird plotlines over the years.

If you told me that this canon has Sonic as an alien super-powered hedgehog who comes from a world of anthropomorphic talking animals and just so happens to be transported to Earth as a matter of plot contrivance, well heck I’d buy it. Heck, it’s not even the first time that plotline was done. Sonic X basically did the same thing and it was halfway decent.

That’s what we have here. Sonic is hiding out on Earth because his ability to run superfast (and attached ability to produce nearly infinite amounts of kinetic energy) is sought after by just about everyone. He ended up on our planet because he had to hide from some violent Echidnas, but his bigger foe here is loneliness. Well, loneliness and Dr. Robotnik as portrayed by Jim Carey.

I thought that there was no possible way that Robotnik could be portrayed in a satisfying way. To some, he is a goofy cartoonish loudmouth, to others he’s an almost Mickey Mousian classic animated villain, to yet others he is a dark mastermind who wiped all life from a planet.

Here he is all three. Carey does such a phenomenal job portraying a Robotnik that is goofy, animated, and sinister at the same time. Yes, you might be a little taken aback by the fact that he has a full head of hair and an only somewhat unreasonable moustache, but don’t worry, he gets on model by the end of the movie.

The plot itself is pretty paint by numbers but that’s OK. Sonic eventually meets Tom, a small town cop from the city of Green Hills, Montana (I see what you did there) who aspires to be a big time street cop in San Francisco. Through their friendship, Sonic finally makes his first friend while Tom realizes that the most important thing is to protect the people who love him most, which just so happens to be everyone in his small town.

So yeah, it’s a pretty simple plot, but at least it has a plot. Most video game movies are just nonsensical strings of references. This was actually a fairly decent feel good buddy movie. I went to see it in mixed company and even the people who had never played a Sonic game in their life left happy.

But boy were the Sonic fans even happier. There were references to just about everything you could think of coming at you at a rapid clip. Here’s just a few that I managed to spot:

  • Gotta Go Fast
  • The Sanic Drawing
  • Chilli Dogs
  • References to Hill Top and Mushroom Hill Zone
  • References to old Sega commercials
  • The origin of “Eggman” and the “Badniks”
  • Visual references to levels from Sonic Unleashed and other modern Sonic games
  • Actual animation references pointing toward 3D Sonic tutorials

And I’m sure there were even more than that.

But the best part about these references? The movie never congratulated itself for making them. It never paused and waited for the audience to get it, winking at us and patting itself on the back. It just kept going, which I suppose is in character for Sonic the Hedgehog. This made them feel subtle, which made the movie less alienating to casual fans, and more rewarding for anyone who was able to point out all the references in the background.

When there weren’t outright references there were subtle hints toward references in the general plot and tone. The fact that the U.S. government wants to catch Sonic, or work together with him, or do something else that is poorly defined isn’t a direct reference, but that sort of stuff has been happening since Sonic Adventure 2. Robotnik’s hidden agendas and multi stage robots again aren’t a direct reference, but that’s what fighting Robotnik is actually like in the games. In fact, we were so satisfied with the references we began counting how many times Sonic hit Robotnik’s robot in the climactic scene, wondering if it would be exactly eight like it was in the game. It wasn’t, it was much more, but we wouldn’t have been surprised if it was.

I gave Carey a lot of praise for his portrayal of Robotnik earlier, but really every actor does a phenomenal job. Ben Schwartz does a great job as Sonic. He captures his hyper attitude perfectly, even throwing back his personality to some of his original portrayals in the ‘90s. James Marsden really doesn’t amount to much more than “Sonic’s friend Tom” but you know what, he does a good job too. He feels human. He has his own problems and wants and he’s more than just being a character of convenience while still managing to not steal the spotlight from Sonic himself.

When it comes down to it, there’s a reason why this movie did so well while so many other video game movies have failed miserably. Sonic: The Hedgehog is self-aware, very self-aware. So many video game movies recklessly change their source material in the interest of creating a movie that will please non-video game fans and in the process make a move that appeals to no one.

This movie does depart from lots of what you might expect from a Sonic property, but it’s also very self-aware. Anytime it changes something about Sonic canon, it looks over to the audience and says “hey, we know we changed this, but look what else we remembered” and you know what? It stems the geek rage.

A lot of reviews criticize this movie for being generic, as if it’s just another buddy cop movie. You know what, they are right. Sonic: The Hedgehog isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel here. It’s just looking to be a genuinely enjoyable movie using characters and elements from the Sonic franchise. It’s a low bar, but so many video game adaptations fail to come close. Sonic passes over that bar by a mile. This isn’t just a good video game movie, it’s a good movie.

No, this won’t win any awards, but you know what I saw going into this movie? I saw a mixture of couples on Valentines dates, families taking their kids to see the new video game movie, and hardcore video game fans wearing meme t-shirts, and they all walked out of the theater happy. I’d bet more than a few rings on you walking out of the theater happy as well.