‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ Runs With Feisty Humor But Can’t Find a Solid Tale

When video games get turned into movies the big question is how to make something interactive into an art form designed to be gazed at. “Sonic the Hedgehog” isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel and is almost designed specifically to turn off your thinking skills, but in trying to jump from one medium to another it reveals why some franchises are best left as games. The voice acting is on point for the speedy little blue guy and Jim Carrey brings his trademark mania, yet it’s all at the service of a nonexistent plot.

Fans of the classic 1991 Sega game will bask in the opening scenes where Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) cruises through a digital reimagining of his trademark fantasy world. But after his home is attacked, Sonic uses special gold rings to then crash land on our own Earth. He ends up in Green Hills, Montana and makes his home in a cave complete with a boom box, pizza and other accessories. In Green Hills we meet Sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), who is trying to get a job in San Francisco. He’s married to Maddie (Tika Sumpter). But when Sonic accidentally causes a massive power outage it attracts the government. Evil mastermind Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Carrey) arrives with soldiers and minions to capture Sonic and harness his super speed. Even worse, when Wachowski finds Sonic he accidentally causes the alien’s bag of gold rings to fall through a dimensional hole into San Francisco, so now they need to go on a road trip to retrieve it.

CGI-heavy movies tend to get slammed with the complaint that they look too much like video games. Ironically, “Sonic the Hedgehog” would actually benefit from going back to its roots. Without much exposition or logic it tries to drop gaming personalities into a bland, real-world environment. Only the opening scenes and closing moment have any real color because they are set in Sonic’s world which features wild arches, gigantic mushrooms and psychedelic colors. Most of the film is set mostly at night in Green Hills. It never dares to get as bold as those notorious ’90s game to cinema attempts like “Super Mario Bros.” or “Street Fighter.” “Sonic” caused negative waves when its trailer first dropped last year and fans complained the hedgehog’s design was too off the mark. Now with some retouches Sonic does look much closer to his original Sega Genesis self. What needed even more work was the screenplay. The filmmakers seem to have concluded that most of their audience would already be Sonic fans, so there’s never an effort to explain just where Sonic’s world is, what its rules are and how an alien can specifically be a hedgehog. Maybe all of these answers are well known amongst gamers or maybe it doesn’t matter much while you’re playing (Sonic was never the most complicated of Sega games). A film should require a better outlined narrative, even if it’s just for the sake that movies are one of the first ways younger viewers will learn about how a story is structured. 

Director Jeff Fowler is making his directorial debut here after having worked on the visual effects for films like “Where the Wild Things Are.” His best moments are when he breaks free from the film’s plot and has fun with the idea of Sonic. The blue alien speeds down a highway, grabs a turtle and takes it for a ride, holding it aloft so we can see the turtle’s face basking in the moment. There’s a hilarious side gag involving a local who insists to everyone that he’s seen Sonic but everyone dismisses him as a crank. As voiced by Ben Schwartz, Sonic talks like a ’90s teenager who would’ve been at home with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He still uses a boom box and hasn’t even made it to iPods but croons to Queen. Schwartz sounds like he’s having fun with the role however and gives Sonic a feisty attitude. James Marsden fails to match Schwartz is very low energy, acting as if he’s just reading off lines from a stale buddy movie. Him and Sumpter never truly seem astounded to have an alien from another planet in their presence and ask few questions when Sonic seeks their help in attaining powerful gold rings. The plot pretends to be about bonding, but there’s never a truly moving scene between the CGI blue hero and his human hosts.

The standout performance is Jim Carrey as Dr. Ivo Robotnik, the only other classic Sonic character featured in the movie. Few actors have been able to evoke the idea of a flesh and blood cartoon onscreen and Carrey does it hilariously. Robotnik is vain about his super intelligence, twirls in his chair while listening to his playlist and boasts about his brain like a spoiled second-grader. Carrey’s performance is both entertaining in the style of some of his past roles like “The Mask,” but it’s also another example of the film’s weird disjointed tone. Robotnik is not an alien, but he’s completely out of place compared to everyone else. Neither the plain woods of Green Hills or the blandly realistic characters can keep up with Sonic or Robotnik’s cartoonish personalities. A possible better approach would have been to just make an animated Sonic the Hedgehog movie with the freedom to be just as visually zany as the game itself. Big visual experiments like the Wachowskis’ “Speed Racer” or last year’s “Alita: Battle Angel” took some flak, but at least they stayed true to the spirit of their source material. 

The third act of “Sonic” is so standard that there’s no such thing as spoiling it. Sonic makes his way to San Francisco with Tom and eventually Robotnik chases him around the city in a craft full of endless drones and missiles. In a way the film becomes its own form of video game, except we don’t get controllers to participate. Certainly many families will help make this film a hit. Parents will rush the little ones to the nearest multiplex to distract them for an hour and a half of Sonic zooming past the screen with little to do other than evade Robotnik’s projectiles. Yet they deserve a little more wit and story. 

Sonic the Hedgehog” opens Feb. 14 in theaters nationwide.