After a rocky production that saw the special effects team rebuild the title character from scratch, no doubt increasing the budget in the process, it’s a minor miracle that Sonic is not only a success, but a good movie. Not a great one, by any stretch, but I’ll take what I can get.
We begin with a prologue that introduces us to young Sonic (Ben Schwartz), an alien hedgehog, on his home planet. His mother-figure, an owl (don’t ask) named Longclaw, tells him to hide his powers of super-speed, warning him that they’ll draw the attention of evildoers. Sonic ignores her advice, and soon his home is attacked by a villainous tribe of echidnas intent on taking his power. Before they can strike, Longclaw uses a magic ring to teleport Sonic to Earth.
Ten years later, Sonic has settled in the sleepy Montana town of Green Hills, where he lives in the shadows and watches the town’s residents from afar. He sees himself as friends with Tom (James Marsden), the local sheriff, and his veterinarian wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter), although they are unaware of his existence. One night, an angry Sonic runs so fast that he accidentally triggers a massive power outage, and the U.S. military brings in unhinged scientist Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) to investigate. After the mustache-twirling doctor picks up his trail, Sonic desperately reveals himself to Tom, and the two form an uneasy partnership as they flee from Dr. Robotnik’s army of drones in a bid to get Sonic to safety.
It’s basic kids’ movie stuff, which is fine, since Sonic is very much a basic kids’ movie. Sure, there’s the odd millennial wink, but it never drifts into the uneven irreverence of, say, the Lego movies, and this proves to be the right decision. It’s really the only way to play this material that makes any sense; Sonic isn’t above the occasional meta joke, but for the most part it’s agreeably sincere.
Less endearing is the unoriginal writing, which samples a host of genre clichés, chief among them an obvious message about the power of friendship. The movie even has the gall to open with Sonic narrating one of those musty “yep, that’s me” flashforwards, complete with a freeze frame of him in an explosive, out-of-context situation. Sonic’s abilities are as strong or weak as each scene requires, with the movie giving the barest of explanations for the inconsistency. It’s easier to forgive this last nitpick because Sonic is more or less a cartoon in tone, sacrificing internal logic for whatever sight gag the moment demands.
Thankfully, said sight gags, as well as the action, are consistently good. The visuals mine Sonic’s super-speed in ways that display significantly more imagination than the plot. Some of the tricks are familiar, like setting Sonic’s bullet-time antics to ironically laid-back songs, a conceit which is only amusing the first time around; but these lapses are more than offset by the movie’s bursts of visual flair. The climax is particularly entertaining, beginning as a continent-traversing chase and ending with a nighttime showdown that takes full advantage of Sonic and Dr. Robotnik’s contrasting, neon-charged color schemes. Sonic himself looks good as well, an especially impressive feat considering he’s a last-minute redesign of the creepiest CGI monstrosity this side of Cats. His physical presence never fully convinces, but it’s a small price to pay for retaining his animated charm.
The movie’s most thankless role, meanwhile, goes to James Marsden. He’s plenty likable and has an easy-going chemistry with Schwartz, but he never feels like anything more than the requisite human co-star. Sure, Tom gets a backstory about wanting to transfer from Green Hills to San Francisco so he can do more good, but it’s perfunctory at best. His character’s true purposes are to have sometimes-funny, sometimes-strained banter with Sonic and to perform routine heroics when the plot calls for it.
It’s Schwartz and Carrey who do the movie’s heavy lifting, and both handle themselves well. Schwartz is suitably broad in the title role, but demonstrates a lightness of touch that keeps Sonic energetic without being annoying. And Carrey has fun in a performance that’s an unabashed throwback to his frenetic 90s heyday. He tones down his shtick just enough – he’s at about a seven here, as opposed to the elevens of Ace Ventura and Batman Forever – to avoid swallowing the movie whole, while still delivering as a fittingly funny and over-the-top villain.
Sonic won’t blow any minds, but it does what a Sonic movie should: it has Sonic going fast, it has Dr. Robotnik being dastardly, it moves along at a brisk pace, and it has a healthy dose of fanservice, including a rare post-credits scene whose excitement feels unmanufactured. It’s as likable as it is insubstantial, so by the standards of video game movies, it’s a masterpiece.