I recently saw Sonic the Hedgehog. I’m not really sure what I expected from it. As a long time Sonic fan stretching all the way back to the Sega Genesis, I’ve encountered many iterations of Sonic and because of this I had both low and high expectations for the movie. Real Sonic fans will understand what I mean by that. It’s a love hate relationship with that franchise. I have to say though the movie actually worked really well.
I don’t want to write a full review of the movie. To summarize, it’s cute and fun. The story is child friendly and whimsical while also providing an, admittedly cliché, emotional plot about friendship. The sound effects were surprisingly good. Especially the robot and tech related stuff. Robotnik’s gloves are probably the best example of this. Jim Carrey gives a phenomenal performance and Dr. Robotnik is developed in ways as a character that I hadn’t seen previously. The same is true for Sonic.
Video game movies, by and large, usually aren’t great. But it’s also not super accurate to say they always stink to high heaven. The rhetoric used goes that way but it’s a fairly hyperbolic claim when you actually look at the entirety of video game movies. I can think of many examples of bad movies based on video games. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (2009), Assassin’s Creed (2016), and Prince of Persia (2010) come to mind. And Prince of Persia tried so hard to be good while respecting the source material. But a number of video game movies have also been passable over the years. Rampage (2018), though by no means a great movie, wasn’t terrible. The Tomb Raider franchise has always been respected as serviceable video game movies. The older stuff tended to be way more campy, but it was also very fun to watch, which honestly should be part of the video game movie experience, just as video games should be fun to play. Like Mortal Kombat (1995) was fairly solid for a movie based on a fighting game and a fun viewing experience. Street Fighter (1994), for all its over the top muscles, preposterous overacting, and silly plot, is extremely entertaining. And the late, great Raul Julia gives one of the most amazing performances in the history of acting.
The weird thing about video game movies is that there doesn’t appear to be any specific formula that works consistently. There are movies based on adult focused games that have serious plots and work genuinely hard to make a good movie that sucked terribly. There are campy movies that make absolutely no sense that are super entertaining. The opposite is also true in both cases. Hitman (2007) should have worked but it was incredibly boring. People give shit to Super Mario Bros. (1993) all day and yet it’s great to watch for the pure spectacle of it and is objectively better than many other video game movies. The most curious thing is that plot wise, Sonic the Hedgehog really isn’t any more true to its source material than Super Mario Bros. and yet most people will probably remember it as being the better video game movie. So again I say there is no formula.
In my opinion, the best video movies have tended to be the ones based on games with the least amount of actual in game storytelling. There are exceptions, but I actually think the exceptions sort of prove the rule. The main problem with Assassin’s Creed is that it pretty much ignores the entire established story of the game franchise. And yet the same can be said about Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog but those movies don’t suck. That’s an interesting conundrum when it comes to trying to pick the best games to make movies out of. People always say they should make a God of War movie, but honestly I don’t think that would work at this point. A TV show maybe, like The Witcher series, but a movie just seems too difficult to execute well. And it’s because of the great storytelling in the games that I think a movie just wouldn’t work. It’s simply too much to fit in one movie. Whereas Super Mario Bros. was much easier to execute and had much lower expectations precisely because of its lack of plot.
Think about how you would summarize the plot of the original Super Mario Bros. (1985) or really any Super Mario Bros. game from that particular game series. For reasons never explained, an Italian plumber, and his brother if you’re playing with two players, travel through a world of mushroom people that has been possibly invaded by an army of evil turtles at the behest of their giant turtle overlord in order to rescue a princess who has been taken hostage. That’s the plot of Super Mario Bros. at face value. You don’t know where the plumbers come from or why they’re in the Mushroom Kingdom. You assume they’re regular Earthling plumbers mostly because they’re Italian and thus would have to hail from a world where Italy exists. But we’re never told where they actually come from. We don’t know why Bowser has invaded the Mushroom Kingdom and kidnapped Princess Peach. We just know he has and since she’s a pretty blonde and he’s a giant fire breathing turtle, the plumbers decide to go up against him and save her. That’s literally all we can objectively say we know about the plot of Super Mario Bros. at face value when actually playing the game(s).
When you think about it, the “plot” to Super Mario Bros. games is pretty much non-existent. But in a way that makes producing a movie easier. There are pretty much no plot expectations other than have Italian plumbers save a princess from an evil reptile. And ideally that reptile has a giant shell and breathes fire. That gives the writers the freedom to come up with whatever they want without being hindered by fan expectations. So instead of looking at the movie as not being about Super Mario Bros. consider the pitch for the movie to producers in 1991/2.
In our world people evolved from apes, or so the science says. But there is a second world where people evolved from reptiles. That world is in political turmoil as a fast talking usurper with a god complex has stolen the throne from the rightful monarch of one of the kingdoms in that world. Two run of the mill Italian plumbers/brothers are accidentally pulled from our world into this world of reptile evolution and forced into a mission to save the princess of the rightful royal family. That sounds insane. For the early 90’s, a pitch like that would definitely get someone’s attention. You might not be sold but you’d have major questions about what happens. It’s original, it’s creative, and it’s really never been done before. Now tack on the fact that it’s based on one of the most successful games of the time. That movie gets made. You could never be that creative with something like a Bioshock movie. Because Bioshock is steeped in plot. And not adhering to that plot would surely anger and disappoint viewers. But that plot is also made to work for the pacing and interaction of a video game. As a movie, it would probably not fair too well even while people would say it sounds like a great idea for a movie on paper. I think it’s that freedom from a preexisting highly developed plot that made Sonic work as a movie.
What is the plot of Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)? I honestly don’t know. In fact, I couldn’t tell you the plot of any Sonic the Hedgehog game until Sonic Adventure (1998) which is technically 13 games into the franchise. I haven’t played all the games though so maybe some of the older ones have more developed plots than the original game. But if I was going to summarize the first game I’d say something like this. A blue hedgehog with super speed terrorizes an evil robotics engineer by destroying his machines and freeing his animal test subjects, in a world that’s not really ever established to be Earth or somewhere else. Even that simple plot description might be a bit too exaggerated from what you can actually gleam from the game(s). This meant that pretty much all a movie absolutely had to have was a fast running blue hedgehog destroying robots in a fight against a robotics engineer named Dr. Robotnik. As with Super Mario Bros., that’s pretty open ended. And that’s exactly why I think the movie worked.
Sonic the Hedgehog movie was pretty much an original plot that goes out of its way to make references to the games. It has Sonic travel to Earth from another dimension because his powers are sought after by greedy, evil people wherever he goes. He’s forced to hide in order to stay safe. He accidentally reveals his powers and that causes Dr. Robotnik to come after him so he can harness that power to improve his robots. While running to survive and hide, Sonic makes some friends and ultimately has to fight Dr. Robotnik in order to save them. That’s the entire plot of the movie. It has almost nothing to do with the games. And pretty much no one seems to have any issue with that. Because again, the games don’t have great plot development to begin with. And since the beginning of the franchise, the existence of humans in Sonic’s world have been canon. Dr. Robotnik is human after all. So placing Sonic on Earth isn’t even ridiculous. The only thing the game did that seemed to completely alter game canon is turn the rings into magical warp gates. Funny enough though, I don’t actually know what the rings are for in the games after more than 20 years of playing them. I just know Sonic collects them and I’ve never thought to question it further before watching the movie.
In my opinion, Sonic the Hedgehog works as a movie for all the reasons that most people would never consider making it into a movie. It has no real story to go off. It’s pretty much an invitation for a writer to tell whatever story they want. Meaning that the success of the movie lies solely on the writer and filmmaker(s) rather than the game(s). By that logic though, it means that movies like Uncharted are very well likely to fail. Monster Hunter World, being a game that has a plot but isn’t really plot contingent could go either way. But again, we do have examples of story driven game franchises working as movies. So there’s really no exact science. All I really know is that I was excited for Assassin’s Creed back in 2016 and it was garbage; and I had little faith in Sonic the Hedgehog, especially after that original model debacle, but was pleasantly surprised. There will be a second Sonic the Hedgehog movie. There will not be another Assassin’s Creed movie. At least not set in the same universe as that 2016 film anyway.
What did you think of Sonic the Hedgehog? Did you think it was a good video game movie or a bad one? What about it worked for you and why?