Sonic the Hedgehog, the electric-blue anthropomorphized mammal who has starred in a slew of Sega video games over the decades, is a perfect emblem of 1990s branding. He’s cute and cartoony, blessed with speedy superpowers, and possesses a seriously rude ’tude. According to the character’s developers, his personality was inspired by Bill Clinton’s “get it done” mind-set, the kind of vague comparison that could have only made sense in 1991. Given Sonic’s frozen-in-time quality, perhaps it’s fitting that his eponymous feature film begins with the hoariest of fourth-wall-breaking story clichés: a record-scratch freeze-frame on Sonic, in medias res, as he says in voice-over, “I bet you’re wondering how I got here.”
Depicting the actual answer to that question could be quite fascinating, considering that Jeff Fowler’s Sonic the Hedgehog took a tortured road to the big screen. Planned for a 2019 debut, the film was delayed after the universally horrified reaction to the initial CGI design of its furry star. Whatever backbreaking work went into the revamp, it’s now seamless: Sonic is every inch the peppy, computerized rascal he’s supposed to be, sporting oversize eyes and lacking rows of realistic human teeth. The film he’s starring in, though, is bland and disposable. It’s not the cavalcade of horror promised by that first trailer, but rather the kind of bad movie one forgets instantly upon leaving the theater.
Sonic was created in a design lab to be the mascot for a platform video game about high speed and lightning reflexes. But like so many other two-dimensional, eight-bit inventions of the early gaming era, he eventually accumulated his own lore, complete with a supporting cast and an internal logic to his universe. Almost all of this existing backstory is too bizarre to be properly rendered in movie form. Instead, the screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller lean on the simple fish-out-of-water setup that drives other recent brand-based kids’ films, such as The Smurfs.
Here’s the pitch: Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) is a super-fast hedgehog from another dimension who, through a series of tragic mishaps involving a talking owl, gets zapped to our universe. He secretly settles in the small town of Green Hills, Montana, growing attached to the local populace but bored with his life in hiding. When he’s discovered, the U.S. military sends in a demented, drone-inventing contractor named Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey) to hunt him down. Sonic, accordingly, embarks on a journey with a local cop, Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), to find a bag of magic rings that will help him escape.
I write this out not simply to elucidate the narrative of Sonic the Hedgehog for the reader at home, but to offer a lesson in the lame, formulaic anonymity of Hollywood plotting. How did an adventure saga about a mystical hedgehog who battles with armies of aliens get turned into an odd-couple road-trip movie? Why would anyone want to see Sonic, who is best known for doing loop-the-loops through neon assault courses, sit in the passenger seat of a pickup truck and trade aimless banter with a highway patrolman? Perhaps there’s an answer lying buried in pages of corporate market research, but the end result cannot shake its cookie-cutter vibe.
Schwartz, whom viewers may remember as the obnoxious Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Recreation, is a talented and charming comic actor, but his lines are a woeful collection of duds—canned zingers about Amazon or Uber that landed with neither the kids nor the adults in my viewing audience. Marsden does his best playing the straight man to a CGI scene partner, but it’s demoralizing work, down to the product-placement moment where he’s forced to recite the Olive Garden catchphrase as if it’s a natural piece of dialogue.
The movie has a small bright spot in Carrey, whose presence evoked even more nostalgia for my Sega Genesis–playing youth than Sonic himself. Carrey’s performance is a throwback to the hyperactive scene-stealing of his early career in movies like Batman Forever. As Dr. Robotnik, he can’t let the simplest bit of expository dialogue go by without making an absolute meal of it; it’s a strange but warmly familiar reminder of a time when he was best known as a comedian who could make the phrase thank you sound like an entire paragraph. Given that Carrey eventually transcended this kind of work to make artier, more intelligent stuff, the role is perhaps a bit of a step-down. Still, he’s perfect for the part—the only performer present who understands the cartoonishness required for such a movie.
If the rest of Sonic the Hedgehog were pitched at Carrey’s energy level, it could at least be distracting. But for such a short movie (it runs 99 minutes with extensive credits), and especially for one about a super-speedy fellow, it never builds momentum. Silly as the project is, it seems like a missed opportunity for some genuinely fun action antics. That manufactured yet arbitrary ethos is best exemplified by the cringeworthy Olive Garden moment, which I kept turning over in my head as the movie continued. Why couldn’t they broker a deal with Sonic Drive-In? I wondered. That would’ve made more sense. Even for those most irrelevant details, Sonic the Hedgehog manages to sail wide of its mark.