Sonic the Hedgehog: The Major Character Change That Saved the Movies

On the surface, Sonic the Hedgehog’s famous redesign is what catapulted the movies to success, but it was actually something much deeper that made everyone love him.

Sonic the Hedgehog Kid
Photo: Paramount

Echoes of Sonic the Hedgehog’s movie redesign will reverberate throughout the industry for decades to come. The visual shift of the film’s title character caused public opinion to take a massive 180-degree turn, transforming the movie’s buzz from negative to overwhelmingly positive. This shift has often been cited as the singular reason the movie turned out to be a hit.

While it can’t be denied that the redesign played a part in Sonic’s newfound movie popularity, a design can only go so far. If the movie had been total garbage, it wouldn’t have been able to retain the publics support. What really saved the Sonic movies was a key decision about how to portray Sonic as a character.

He became a kid.

There are endless versions of Sonic in video games and comic books, and while some gestured at the idea of him being a kid or teenager, it never really felt like way. In earlier media, the character always seemed like an edgy teen or just a generically “adult” character who’s had a lifetime of experience that doesn’t need to be expanded on.

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The live-action movies however fully embraced the idea of Sonic being a kid. In the opening moments of the first film, a very young Sonic escapes from an attack that leads to the death of his surrogate mother. He’s sent to Earth and for years lives on his own. He copes the best he can and he’s got one-liners for days, but it’s readily apparent this is masking his loneliness. Sonic befriends police officer Tom (James Marsden) and his wife, the veterinarian Maddie (Tika Sumpter), even though they don’t know it. When they watch movies, Sonic eagerly watches from outside, pretending he’s part of the family.

Sonic’s loneliness comes to a head in a shockingly deep moment where, after playing a baseball game with himself, Sonic is faced with the fact he’s all alone in the world. He’s so sad he runs faster than he ever has before, causing a mass power blackout. It’s this moment where you fall in love with Sonic. This isn’t just the WAY PAST COOL ‘90s mascot brought forward to the 2020s. This is a character you feel for, one that kids in the audience can relate to.

Throughout the first film, Sonic acts so excited around Tom (to the point of annoyance). This is not just because it’s a kids movie; it’s because Sonic is a kid who’s making a connection with someone for the first time. The end of the film plays this up even more, with Tom and Maddie basically adopting Sonic and giving him his own room, complete with a race car bed!

Clearly the team behind the Sonic movies keyed into this kid element and doubled down on it for the second film. In it, Tom functions as a dad to Sonic. He imparts family wisdom, constantly worries about Sonic, and wishes Sonic had friends that’s his own age and that are like him. Sonic is again excited at the idea of making a new friend and the great twist that the movie uses is that Tails, often portrayed as Sonic’s sidekick, is instead played as a kid brother to Sonic. Yes, the hero worship that other Sonic iterations have established is there but the fact they’re both kids makes the two’s bond all the more sweet.

Director Jeff Fowler, director of the first and second Sonic the Hedgehog movies, told us that the idea of Sonic being a kid was something he and Sonic actor Ben Schwartz discussed early on when trying to find the voice and tone of the character. The kid angle solidified when they realized that Sonic would have been an outsider all his life and this would strike a chord with younger viewers especially. Who hasn’t felt like a weirdo or outsider?

This choice also factored into Schwartz’s performance. As Fowloer describes it, “[Schwartz’s] Sonic is this very excited, very manic kind of kid. Very motormouth. Just full of life, full of optimism, full of joy. It felt like a wonderful character you’d want to spend time with.”

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Colleen O’Shaughnessey, who voices Tails in the film, had played the character in television shows and video games before, but approached the role differently now because of both Tails and Sonic’s ages. Since this was the beginning of their relationship, she wanted Tails to not be as sure of himself.

“He’s nervous. He’s meeting this hero of his that he’s watched from afar,” O’Shaughnessey says.

Tails is much like Sonic in the first movie. He wants a friend but instead of Sonic, who looked up to someone much older in Tom during the first movie, Tails is looking up to someone closer in age. It’s a big brother/little brother dynamic and it’s one of the many reasons Sonic the Hedgehog 2 works as well as it does. You can have all the universe jumping antics and Jim Carrey-mugging you want, but it is those identifiably kid-like elements of Sonic and Tails that make the movies, and most importantly the characters, stick with you.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is now available to purchase digitally and stream on Paramount+.