Why Sonic the Hedgehog is the best video game adaptation


I’ve been a Sonic the Hedgehog fan for most of my life. Like someone admitting they’re an alcoholic, I have finally come to terms that I am a fan of the Blue Blur. Since he first came to Nintendo consoles in 2002 with Sonic Advance and Sonic Adventure 2 Battle, I’ve followed all of his exploits. All of his games, for better and most certainly for worse, his TV appearances, and yes, even his debut in a feature length film.

It seems like such a distant memory, but recall when we saw the first teaser trailer for the film. Rumors were flying around about what Sonic would look like, and none of them were flattering. The actual reveal was even less so. No one would have batted an eye if you said that you thought the movie would be flaming hot garbage. I mean, it only makes sense. Everything about his live-action incarnation seemed to be in line with the downhill trajectory of the series. Just another embarrassment for fans to quietly shuffle away from as the general populace dogpiled each other to make fun of it.

But then the redesign came. And it was good. And then the film released. And it was also good. Not great, but solid enough to warrant a sequel being greenlit. And with the sequel arriving in a few days, and with two years between my first viewing of the movie and now, I can safely say that yes, Sonic the Hedgehog is the best video game movie adaptation. Low bar, I know, but it’s still a feat.

Sonic the Hedgehog

The question though is why? Or better yet, how? The simplest answer is that the movie doesn’t try to shoot for the moon. Sonic the Hedgehog, as a movie, understands that trying to shoehorn in the plot of a video game isn’t going to do itself any favors. Video game narratives can’t really be contained within a feature-length time, and if we’re being honest with ourselves here, most video game plots aren’t worth telling, and that includes the games that Sonic comes from. As someone who loves the medium, let’s be real with ourselves, video game stories tend to be rather either rbasic and unimpressive, or bloated and padded beyond reproach.

Sonic games typically fall into the former category. They aren’t known for their plots. The closest I would argue that Sonic ever went to telling a cohesive story is with Sonic Adventure 2, and I’m pretty sure I only like the plot of that game because of pure, unadulterated nostalgia. If you’re unfamiliar with the franchise, bless your heart. But if you unfortunately are, then you’re probably aware that Sonic has a cast of dozens of characters that no one cares about. If you were going to do a straight adaptation of the games, then you’re going to have a bad time shoehorning in characters that people just don’t care about.

That’s why the approach that Jeff Fowler took was undeniably the right one. Sonic was the only animated character within the movie. He was portrayed as being an energetic kid that never really had a home or a family, dead mom owl notwithstanding.

Yeah, do you remember Owl Mom? She was only in the intro of the movie and she serves no purpose other than to give Sonic his magic Macguffin and die. Sonic doesn’t even mourn her when he gets to Earth, he just adapts to life there pretty easily. I legitimately keep forgetting that dead owl mom is a thing. Why is there a dead owl mom? I couldn’t tell you, other than to justify the the unmitigated loneliness Sonic feels after leaving her.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Sonic is an outsider who wants to belong, a theme that was never a part of the games but works for this version of the character. He has the basic outlines of his video game counterpart; he’s cocky, a little full of himself, and stands up for his friends. But in the film, that’s all to mask his obvious loneliness. It’s a coping mechanism, one that actually manages to enhance the character. When you think of any other video game adaptation, it’s hard to think of any that actually manages to go to new places with its central character other than to homage things they did in their games. Sonic does do that here, like with his quips and one-liners as well as his love of chili dogs, but now there’s an actual character here and not just 90s inspired attitude.

Keep in mind, for as deep as I’m making freaking Sonic the Hedgehog sound, it’s ultimately a family movie. There are plenty of jokes to be had, some lighthearted banter between him and his human friend James Marsden, and a road-trip plot that feels like comfort food. Sonic is going to San Francisco with James Marsden to get his magic rings back so he can escape Jim Carrey’s Dr. Robotnik. There are chase scenes, an obligatory Quicksilver homage showing off Sonic’s super speed, and a climax that feels wholly earned if only because the movie keeps everything small. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s not trying to be that. The film just wants to entertain and it does so.

Nothing is more entertaining in the movie than Jim Carrey’s performance as Robotnik/Eggman. Jim Carrey is an actor who, let’s be honest here, peaked in the 90s for a lot of people. Whether it be through Ace Ventura, Cable Guy, Batman Forever, The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, or many other great comedies, he was a household name and know as being a generally funny comedian. Carrey channels that 90s energy with his Robotnik, making what could have been a streotypical mad scientist into… well, a stereotypical mad scientist, just one played by a manic Jim Carrey. It says a lot that even when the disastrous original trailer released, the internet already declared that Jim Carrey would be the saving grace of the movie.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Via: Paramount Pictures

Sonic the Hedgehog knew exactly what it wanted to be and how it was going to present its world. There was no plan to make a massive cinematic universe out of the movie because historically, making plans like that early only serve to make you look like an idiot in hindsight (Oh hi Dark Universe!). The film ran a modest 90 minutes, told a simple story, had simple jokes, had a simple dynamic between Sonic and Robotnik, but it all paid off.

That’s one of the reasons why I’m a bit more cautious about Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Paramount is now starting to make plans for a Sonic the Hedgehog shared universe with sequels, spin-offs, and complications that are probably going to have diminishing returns. Sonic is going to fall plague to the same problems that his games had where there were too many characters going on with a story that no one is really going to be invested in. Just watch them turn the seven chaos emeralds into their version of the infinity gems.

But none of that takes away from just how fun it is to watch Sonic the Hedgehog. No, it’s not a cinematic masterpiece, but it is fun. In a world where most other video game disasters make me wish for the sweet embrace of death, I don’t get that feeling at all from Sonic the Hedgehog. Not even a cynical scoff at it being alright for a video game adaptation. It’s just legitimately good and should be honored for that. Maybe not celebrated, but at least acknowledged for being the best example of a subgenre of film that has been a punching bag for nearly three decades.

Jesse Lab
The strange one. The one born and raised in New Jersey. The one who raves about anime. The one who will go to bat for DC Comics, animation, and every kind of dog. The one who is more than a tad bit odd. The Features Editor.