When watching Sonic the Hedgehog, it is easy to feel like you’ve time warped back to a different era—but not the 1990s. At least not fully. While the film thrives on a wave of nostalgia that any ‘90s kid with shadows of Sega Genesis glory in their memory banks can recognize, in truth the movie more closely resembles a family film from the 2000s. For here is a perfectly adequate effort that refuses to rock the boat or even leave the bay. It instead sits firmly on the dock, relying on banal pop culture gags, a tacky premise about beloved pop culture icons entering suburbia via interdimensional portals, and maybe the stray fart joke. They even have a major comedian from the previous decade slumming it here.
Because while Sonic the Hedgehog is cut from the same bland mold as Garfield (2004), Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007), and The Smurfs (2011), the one thing besides the little blue fur ball that feels most like a relic of the Clinton years is Jim Carrey. Of course his fame carried on from the ‘90s, but it’s hard to think of a bigger comic star of that era than the one who got famous by pretending to talk out of his ass.
Alas, his shtick hasn’t aged any more gracefully than 1994’s Ace Ventura. And it really is the same shtick here, with the only differences between his Dr. Robotnik in 2020 and his Riddler from 1995 is that he’s a little less green and has fewer co-stars to bounce off. Tommy Lee Jones might’ve been hell to work with on Batman Forever, but at least he was a compelling straight man. In Sonic, Carrey maniacally prances and mugs in soundstages all by himself for most of his scenes—or worse still, acts off a green screen standing in for Sonic. It’s Norma Desmond levels of hideous, only without Gloria Swanson’s self-awareness that this is supposed to be embarrassing.
How Carrey’s dastardly mad scientist winds up crossing paths with the famed hedgehog is a case study in standard family movie Mad Libs. Sonic lives on a digital paradise island that looks just like the Green Hills stages from the video game. However, his guardian, a giant bird named Longclaw (who in voiceover Sonic refers to as “my Obi-Wan Kenobi”), is seemingly killed by random bad guys. Before Longclaw dies, she sends Sonic to Earth with magic rings. Thus he grows up living in Green Hills, Montana, a small town where he plays baseball by himself, reads The Flash comic books in a hidden cave, and spies on the daily activities of the town’s inhabitants.
Local sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) is oblivious to Sonic’s existence, as is everyone else in town save for one old timer who calls Sonic the “Blue Devil” (maybe Mike Krzyzewski should recruit him?). In fact, Tom’s planning on leaving home and moving with his wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter) to San Francisco where he can work as a cop with a more exciting day-to-day. But things perk up quickly when Sonic inadvertently draws the attention of the U.S. government to Green Hills, and their preferred mad science genius, Dr. Robotnik. With Carrey’s army of drone robots and shrill screams hot on his heels, Sonic must come out of hiding and team up with Tom to go on a road trip to Frisco for, uh, reasons.
To the movie’s credit, children who likely won’t notice the script’s prosaism, and hardcore ‘90s nostalgists who can overlook it, will be served well enough. After enduring a four-month delay to change the character model of Sonic from its original CGI nightmare fuel to something that actually resembles the Sega video game character, Paramount Pictures has been rewarded with a Sonic movie that looks like vintage Sonic the Hedgehog. Fans of the character will feel satisfied about that, as well as the few glimpses we see of Sonic’s homeworld and whenever he faces off against Dr. Robotnik in the third act. Ben Schwartz likewise channels the good humor of the little blue dude with attitude in his vocal performance, albeit he’s less of a badass here and more a Dickensian orphan looking for surrogate parents.
Yet these elements simply highlight how much better Sonic the Hedgehog would’ve worked as an actual animated movie, as opposed to this latest live-action/CG monstrosity. The few moments of genuine inspiration just make the rest of the film’s laziness all the more jarring—and prevent the film’s titular character from being anything better than a three-dimensional meme spouting pop culture references intended to keep parents awake.
Playing against the digital paperweight, Marsden does passable work. Having some experience acting with CG characters in innocuous entertainments, he has a natural ease with the Sonic character and actually provides a good foil for Carrey in their few scenes together—suggesting Carrey’s hyper-spasms could’ve worked better if someone was there to exorcise his worst impulses. Yet ultimately Marsden’s presence should bring to mind for adults the one time he played the Sonic-like character in a much better rendition of this formula, Enchanted (2006).
Compared to that “Disney Princess and Prince warp to our world” movie, Sonic appears both more dated and depressingly modern with its dependency on superhero aesthetics. Indeed, Sonic’s big moments are all variations of the “Quicksilver scene” from Fox’s X-Men movies that kept diminishing in awe after each installment.
So Sonic the Hedgehog is disposable entertainment: the kind of low hanging fruit that can distract children and maybe prevent adults from staring only at their watch (though they still will). But mediocrity is nothing to be celebrated. Even throughout the movie, there is a subplot about Sonic fearing he’ll need to abandon Earth for a “safer” planet that is populated only by mushrooms. A nice dig at Mario aside, the movie is aware that settling for an empty feeling isn’t enough. Sure, this might be better than the Super Mario Bros. movie from back in the day, but agreeing this is the best ‘90s video game movie is still damning with the faintest of praise.
David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of both the Critics Choice Association and the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.