Directed by: Jeff Fowler Written by: Pat Casey and Josh Miller
What should we expect from “adapted” movies? Personally, I’m not sure if I can provide a consistent, unbiased answer. As a child I could nitpick about Harry Potter films for their differences from the books, and I was highly disappointed by the liberties taken in the film version of A Series of Unfortunate Events (save for Jim Carrey’s amusing dinosaur improv). Nowadays, I’m more open to the idea that stories can and perhaps should subvert themselves as they are translated between mediums. There are still times, however, when I show someone a film in place of making them read a book and resent what the film turns out to be (I’m looking at you Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close).
Along with Cats, Sonic the Hedgehog stands out as a film that changed itself in response to fan pressure. A backlash against the way Sonic appeared (particularly his humanesque eyes) in the film’s original trailer, lead to the character being redesigned to appear almost exactly as he does in his cartoons/video-games .
To me this seemed an odd decision. Surely Sonic fans would be curious (not just peeved) about this weird new iteration of their beloved character and would still ultimately go to the movie. Nevertheless, the creators caved and the film has been a box office success. Having since seen the movie I can somewhat appreciate why the change was essential.
Sonic (a blue “hedgehog” voiced by Parks and Recreation’s Ben Schwartz), comes from a distant planet. In search of safety, he teleports to Earth and develops an affection for the small town of Green Hills, particularly police officer Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) and his veterinarian wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter). The catch, however, is that Sonic never reveals himself to any of his human “friends,” and the loneliness gradually gets to him.
Sonic’s frustration manifests one night, when his super-speed produces a signal that tips off US intelligence to his alien presence. Sonic is then forced to go into hiding, as the military calls on the twisted-inventor Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) to catch him. For a brief moment, it appears the film is making a critique of shady U.S. intelligence operations, but any viewer hoping for such ambition will end up disappointed.
Carrey is undoubtedly one of the film’s selling points. His first scene is a dramatic one filled with improvised verbal and bodily quips. As a standalone oddity, the moment is a great one. On the flip-side, Carrey’s whimsy is never quite systematized, and Dr. Robotnik is never quite given the chance to fully establish himself as a character.
While I have virtually no experience playing the Sonic video games, one thing I thought about while watching the movie was the oddness of having its protagonist-pairing be Sonic and a human (Marsden). Why, I silently wondered, was Sonic’s fox-sidekick, Miles “Tails” Prower , absent? My mind then wandered to the fact that Robin is absent in most of the live-action Batman movies. Batman movies, unlike some of their cartoon counterparts, tend to have a serious and dusky air to them. Robin, the brightly colored “boy wonder,” undoubtedly changes that affect and allows Batman stories to revel in their campier side.
Sonic the Hedgehog may not be a dark movie, but separating Sonic from Tails (and other similar characters), serves the same function as separating Batman from Robin. Sonic is adapted from a whimsical world: a world populated by colorful villains like Robotnik. But it would seem that there’s an expectation when media is translated to movie form, that it must have more gravitas than it source. As such, Batman can’t fight alongside Robin, and Sonic could not fight alongside Tails (unless of course a sequel comes around). Instead, he had to fight alongside a bland, smalltown, human cop, who has to learn a valuable lesson about being true to oneself and one’s community.
So why was it necessary that Sonic look exactly as he had always looked? Because Sonic is about the only piece that made this movie a Sonic movie. If your movie claims to be about a video game character, but opts for a generic Hollywood buddy plot, over setting up a true video-game sensibility, then what short of the character’s likeness ties you work to the source material?
Years ago there was an attempt to make a Super Mario Bros movie. A gritty work that took great liberties with its source, the film has a cult-following, but isn’t exactly a beloved classic. Sonic, by contrast, is play-it-safe, accessible, and free from any substantial darkness. Nonetheless, the films are two sides of the same coin. Both Mario and Sonic live in colorful videogame worlds with goofy aesthetics. Mario for instance, is an Italian plumber who lives in a world inhabited by turtles and mushrooms (an idea the Mario film barely acknowledges, though the Sonic film gives it a coy nod).
Film adaptors could have taken these aesthetics and relished in the challenge of extending them into full stories. And even within the confines of its current structure, Sonic the Hedgehog has some clear “just missed” moments. In one scene for instance, Tom asks Sonic what he is and Sonic replies “a hedgehog.” In theory this could be a hilariously absurd line. A “hedgehog,” describes a small, quadripedal, Earthling mammal. Sonic is a human-child-sized, bipedal, blue creature from another planet. Neither Sonic’s delivery nor Tom’s response, however, truly bring out this pleasingly absurd incongruence. Sonic’s existence is treated as “weird,” but never as Alice in Wonderland weird.
Sonic the Hedgehog offers an accessible story about a familiar character with a memorable enough sense of humour. Nonetheless, I can’t help but be frustrated with the kind of adaptation that seems more concerned with putting a marketable character on screen, than asking how such a character can best use the screen. I have nothing against James Marsden, but I’d far rather see a Sonic (with or without humanesque eyes) zooming across the screen with a cartoon fox, than a familiar face arbitrarily learning life lessons alongside the least cartoonish co-protagonist imaginable.