There is a scene about midway through Sonic the Hedgehog that takes place at the top of San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid. Jim Carrey’s sinisterly mustachioed Dr. Robotnik is attempting to blow away the title character with the help of an army of deadly drones. He notes the confidence of his adversary, a trait which he remarks is often confused with intelligence.
Then, perhaps realizing that such observations are beside the point in situations like this, the despotic inventor decides to move forward. “The time for talking is over,” he declares with manic precision. “Now is the time for pushing buttons!”
In what is something of a movie miracle or at the very least an unexpected surprise, this adaptation of the much-loved Sega video game franchise launched nearly 30 years ago as a direct assault on Nintendo’s leaping plumber Mario, largely presses the all the right buttons—and even does so in the right order.
Directed by Jeff Fowler, making his feature-film debut after directing the 2004 Academy Award-nominated short film Gopher Broke, the film exudes an easy charm and affability. Its joyfulness and lighthearted sense of fun go a long way towards counterbalancing the cynicism and slick hucksterism baked into this sort of endeavor, which—even when you are enjoying its straightforward appeal—never lets you forget it is as much a product launch as it is cinema.
The film plays lip service to the importance of human connection—the conflict is kicked off when Sonic (voiced and facial-motion-captured by Ben Schwartz, Parks and Recreation‘s Jean-Ralphio) gets existentially depressed by his isolation and accidentally causes a power outage in the Pacific Northwest. In truth, the movie is in its heart about the comfort and joy we find in products. Whether they be restaurant chains (Olive Garden), sneakers (Pumas), websites (Zillow) or video games (this one you can guess), Sonic the Hedgehog longs to be just another unthreatening, speedy and efficient new object—like those it constantly name drops. By in large, it succeeds.
SONIC THE HEDGEHOG ★★★
The film works chiefly because its small ensemble of players has been well chosen and put in positions to thrive. As Tom Wachowski, the small town Montana cop who longs to make an impact in the big city, James Marsden comes off as both silly and stalwart; Tika Sumpter, as his veterinarian wife, lends a steely resolve to the human heroes. Carrey’s sugared-up and sometimes surreal slapstick (from time to time, he walks like a robot for no other reason than it’s funny and he’s good at it) has aged like a fine Twinkie: it’s every bit as fresh as it was in 1994.
Despite his enormous powers, Schwartz’s Sonic comes off as a charming and unthreatening man-child. (His cave is decorated with the traffic signs and beanbag chair of a basement rec room one might sheepishly move into rent-free after finishing college.) The Funny or Die and CollegeHumor vet imbues the blue alien with the manic friendliness of a TV pitchman or carnival barker.
As for how he comes off visually— after a disastrous response to the original trailer, the character was redesigned and the film delayed. Well, we now know what it’s like to watch a movie starring a top-tier Skee-Ball prize. In this case, the filmmakers were able to get what amounts to a stuffed toy to emote more successfully than, say, the filmmakers behind last summer’s The Lion King were able to wring out of photo-realistic dwellers of the African savanna.
To its great credit, Fowler’s movie, written by Pat Casey and Josh “Worm” Miller (they teamed up for the short-lived Fox animated series Golan the Insatiable), has the assurance to know exactly what it is trying to be, which, in the age of Dolittle, is impressive. Even when grappling with potentially heavy themes like government-sponsored drone warfare and situational depression, Sonic the Hedgehog never loses its buoyant sense of storytelling.
When it comes to launching a family-friendly potential franchise, this kind of confidence works every bit as well as artistry or intelligence. As the fiendish Dr. Robotnik helpfully points out, it is pretty much indistinguishable from it.