When Sonic the Hedgehog made his theater debut two years ago, after decades as a famed video-game mascot, the cinematic equivalent of a ball and chain was placed around his speedy little legs. He still looked every inch the big-eyed blue speedster from Sega’s many games, but the movie made him spend all of his time palling around with a local cop in small-town Montana instead of battling alien robots in phantasmagoric, loop-de-loop-filled locations like the Casino Night Zone. Sonic, who wears a pair of red sneakers and downs chili dogs, can run at the speed of sound. So why did he spend so many scenes just sitting in a car?
That film, one of the last big-budget ones to be released before the coronavirus pandemic began, was a surprise hit. So, inevitably, audiences are now being treated to Sonic the Hedgehog 2, featuring the return of Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz); his policeman buddy, Tom (played by James Marsden); and the villainous Ivo Robotnik (played by Jim Carrey), along with some new animal friends. But this film has a much more whimsically nerdy energy and runs a robust 122 minutes, compared with its predecessor’s 99. This is no quirky, fish-out-of-water comedy sneaking in a couple of cute Sega Genesis references; Sonic 2 is confident that it can throw notions such as Chaos Emeralds and tribes of talking echidnas at the audience without fear of confusion. Video games have firmly entered the monoculture, and Sonic is here to lead the parade.
Nailing the effective video-game-to-film translation has always been tricky—even moderate hits such as the Resident Evil series mostly emphasized familiar horror and action beats over the expansive fantasy of the virtual worlds they were based on. But last year, the unexpected success of Ryan Reynolds’s action movie Free Guy felt somewhat seismic—the conceptual story was rooted in non-player-characters and open-world gaming but was rendered as comedy for a mainstream audience. Then, earlier this year, an anemic adaptation of the famed Uncharted series still managed to win big at the box office, perhaps helped by the star, Tom Holland, but likely also by the overall popularity of those games.
All that said, Sonic 2 is far less anxious to keep our spunky blue hero grounded in the real world. Yes, the human leads (played by Marsden, Carrey, Tika Sumpter, and Natasha Rothwell) still have time to earn some laughs, but the stars of this picture are superpowered animals with cartoon eyes, locked in an interdimensional war for control of a powerful jewel. The nonsense backstory is the kind that programmers would cram into a one-page prologue in an instruction manual, a smudge of narrative color to go along with their carefully designed 16-bit platforming—except for the fact that over the years, as the generations that played these games have grown up, those throwaway details have become generally accepted lore, and now the building blocks of a new Hollywood franchise.
Sonic 2 begins with the villainous inventor Robotnik, exiled to an empty planet filled with mushrooms, encountering an echidna with attitude named Knuckles (voiced, with typically commanding style, by Idris Elba) and teaming up with him to exact revenge on Sonic, against whom the echidnas apparently bear a lifelong grudge. Echidnas, in case you don’t know, are adorable, egg-laying mammals also known as spiny anteaters, though Knuckles’s most prominent feature is the pointy spikes on his gloved hands, with which he viciously punches his way through every battle.
Sonic is assisted in fighting off this new threat by the plucky Tails (Colleen O'Shaughnessey), a gadget-whiz fox with two tails that can spin together in a helicopter-esque motion. Always my favorite character from the games because of his gentler outlook, Tails firmly establishes his role as the Donatello of the group—good with computers, levelheaded, and slightly less interested in direct combat. The inclusion of other CGI characters actually helps balance out Sonic’s manic energy a little bit; watching them bounce off of one another is somehow easier than watching human actors try their best to interact with imaginary creatures that couldn’t show up to set.
Tom and his wife, Maddie (played by Sumpter), are largely relegated to a ridiculous B-plot in which they attend the wedding of Maddie’s sister, Rachel (Rothwell), and a hunk named Randall (Shemar Moore). But the bifurcation of human and animal narratives (they link up again at the end) feels helpful as well; Sonic’s quest for a magic emerald is too absurd to involve a small-town cop. Carrey, of course, is the flesh-and-blood exception to these rules, because he’s always been adept at living cartoonery. After his joyful performance in the first Sonic, he ups the ante here, sporting a foot-long mustache and turning every line reading into a symphony of Ace Ventura–style mugging.
Is Sonic 2 wall-to-wall silliness? Of course. Is there an extended sequence in which Sonic and Tails enter a dance-off with a group of angry Siberian hunters? Yes. Does Knuckles at one point refer to the game of baseball as “the base of balls”? He does. But unlike the first film, Sonic 2 has a daft sense of fun that feels totally self-assured, a proper blend of kid-friendly gags and deeply dorky world building, complete with post-credit sequences and ever-expanding lore. Sonic 2 is hardly Shakespeare, but if video-game movies are going to take over the industry, they might as well be done with this kind of conviction.