Is it fair to say Sonic is back? Or did Sega's 16-bit mascot—the blue dude with attitude who gave rise to a whole generation of fanart—never really leave us? Either way, I walked out of Sonic's new movie on Saturday thinking to myself, "Hey, that wasn't too bad." Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but also not something I've been able to say about Sonic very much in the past, I don't know, 20 years or so.
Okay, that's a little harsh. Sonic Mania was great. Sonic Colors was... fun. One way or another, Sonic and friends have managed to linger in the popular imagination, whether through games, merchandise, or cartoons. A whole generation has been reared on shows like Sonic Boom, and they will doubtlessly flood theaters to see this new live-action film, which was the subject of so much (possibly artificial) pre-release controversy. But being perfectly honest, this movie isn't really for kids; it's for the parents who grew up playing Sonic on Sega Genesis, and watching Jim Carrey in the movies.
It very quickly dispenses with Sonic's fantastic homeland—filled with loops and killer echidnas—in favor of an idealized vision of small-town Montana, giving it a curious Field of Dreams vibe (there's even a scene involving an empty baseball diamond at night). Forced to go into hiding, Sonic longingly watches the community from afar, sometimes taking passing turtles for the ride of their life, sometimes catching a random screening of Speed through a window. Eventually this dynamic gives way to a roadtrip / chase movie, with Sonic aided by Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), a rural cop who dreams of somehow affording rent in San Francisco.
Sonic is played by voice talent Ben Schwartz as a hyperactive and somewhat needy kid, which is apt to feel like a little bit of a departure from the '90s attitude that defined the character—no doubt a creative choice to make Sonic seem cute rather than grating. Either that, or Sonic will have to "earn" this attitude in the course of one of the many sequels doubtlessly already being planned. Wachowski, meanwhile, is a well-meaning but very naive police officer who gets more screentime than he probably should. It makes sense to have someone to contrast with Sonic, but all of his anxieties about moving to the big city take up too much time in a film that's at its best when Sonic and Jim Carrey are busy doing their thing.
Speaking of Carrey, he arrives around the beginning of the second act, and very quickly sets to work punching up lines like "I was spitting out formulas while you were still spitting up formula!" Cast as an evil, hyperactive Sherlock, Carrey struts around... er... robotically... while peppering subordinates and townsfolk alike with insults. His army consists of drones that look as if they've been lifted from the Portal games, which he controls from the semi that he uses to pursue Sonic and Wachowski. It's a credit to Carrey's genius for physical comedy that he's able to elevate otherwise very basic material to the degree that he does. It's the casting decision that ultimately makes the movie.
Still, for all of Carrey's frenetic energy, Sonic is an oddly languid film. The pace slows at the beginning of the roadtrip—right around the time it should be picking up—and kind of stays there for the rest of the movie. The jokes are conventional; the setpieces drag on longer than they should. It picks up again at the climax, but when it's all said and done, Sonic is a formulaic roadtrip movie that relies heavily on its stars for its appeal.
That might just be Sonic, though. Around 2000 or so, Sonic and Mario experienced an evolutionary divergence. Where Mario evolved into a Pixar-like prestige character, Sonic became even more of a traditional kids mascot. There's nothing wrong with that really, it just means that a Sonic movie really only has to hit the broad character strokes to be a success.
"Just don't be a disaster" might be a condescending way to approach a live-action Sonic movie, but the franchise hasn't exactly set a high bar in the years since its 16-bit heyday. Still, it does seem like Sega is treating Sonic with a bit more care these days, and this moderately enjoyable video game adaptation reflects that. It never merited more than a handful of chuckles throughout, but the redesigned Sonic worked, Jim Carrey as Robotnik worked, and the absolutely killer credits sequence really worked. When the inevitable sequel hooks appeared, they were greeted with warm cheers from the audience.
That's Sonic in 2020: competent, inoffensive, and perfectly happy to cater to kids and nostalgic adults alike. It's not the most groundbreaking or exciting formula, but it's apt to be enough to fuel many more perfectly decent Sonic movies in the years to come.
Fun, but often painfully conventional, Sonic succeeds more on the merits of its familiar heroes and villains, and less on its vanilla human characters. It's not the disaster many expected, but neither is it exactly memorable. In short, it's perfectly okay animated fare for the kids, and a decent helping of 90s nostalgia for adults.