For all the kerfuffle that erupted in the spring of 2019 over the visual design of Sonic the Hedgehog, the blue-furred speed-demon mascot of the Sega video game–turned–live-action kiddie adventure, you wish that the creators of “Sonic the Hedgehog,” who went back and redesigned the character after being pressured (I almost wrote bullied) by his fans, had been inspired to redo the character’s voice.
Sonic, who was attacked for looking too anthropomorphic for comfort (there was a great deal of attention paid to his unnecessarily human teeth), is now closer to the big-eyed, red-sneakered scamp with a stylized smirk who was launched by Sega in 1991 and wound up becoming a kind of Mario or Pac-Man for millennials. In the movie, he now approximates the cuddly Astro Boy look of Sonic from the game franchise. But he talks like the ultimate gratingly overfamiliar cartoon smart aleck — a little snide, a little nerdy, with a mild whine of attitude, though essentially he’s voiced (by Ben Schwartz of “Parks and Recreation”) to sound like your pal, as if the film had concocted some sort of vocal smoothie out of Garfield and Fritz the Cat and Owen Wilson and Patton Oswalt. Whatever Sonic now looks like, his soul is innocuous.
Given the level of obsession with which Sonic’s fans regard him, the makers of “Sonic the Hedgehog” would have done well to turn the film into a slapstick theme park of video-game trickery, like the relentlessly imaginative “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” But no! Their truly epic bad decision, far worse than the original fussy humanoid design of Sonic, was to make the “Sonic” movie into one of those clunky live-action adventure comedies with a digitally animated generic weisenheimer plopped into the middle of it.
The trouble with this form is that the live-action setting inevitably results in a cloyingly cheerful camp-sitcom woodenness — in this case, the tale of how Sonic buddies up with Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), a sheriff in the small town of Green Hills, Montana. The two finally land in San Francisco, so that the film can have an action climax set atop one of the towering platforms of the Transamerica Pyramid. Wherever they are, though, they’re an odd couple rotely snarky enough to make your lids droop.
So how speedy is Sonic? He’s so fast that he jogs at 297 miles per hour, plays a baseball game with himself, and can effectively slow any situation to a standstill, crawling around inside it to make whatever adjustments are necessary. (This ability comes in handy, and entertainingly, when he’s stuck in a redneck bar.) He’s like the Road Runner without the silently amused mystique. Early on, he dashes around to the tune of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” (“I wanna make a super-sonic man out of you”), which gives you a preview of the film’s product-tie-in idea of cleverness. Sonic has his gold video-game rings that allow him to teleport, and his mind zips around too, which means that he adds a spin of rapid-fire noodginess to lines like, “The face I was born with. The confidence I picked up along the way.”
“Sonic the Hedgehog” does perk up, sort of, when Jim Carrey is onscreen as the evil Dr. Robotnik, whose origin story this basically is. After the electric light from one of Sonic’s mad dashes shorts out the entire Pacific Northwest, the U.S. military is convinced that there must be some sort of alien invasion afoot. So they send in Robotnik, a freelance machine wizard, to investigate. Carrey, wearing a big waxed mustache out of an old Western, a long black coat with a lining of satanic red, and a haircut that can only be described as a Hitler fade, does a vintage Carrey turn — which is to say, he could have given the exact same performance in 1998, and maybe did, but there’s a giddy nostalgia to seeing him execute these routines with such timeless demon-sprite abandon.
Robotnik is a cracked tyrant genius who controls an army of sensor drones (they’re like the weaponized droids in “RoboCop,” except that they look like flying humidifiers), and his driving force in life appears to be to demonstrate, at every opportunity, his innate superiority. We all know that your average Hollywood comedy tends to include some on-set improvisation, but in this case the contrast between the leaden pseudo-brashness of the rest of the movie and the ping! of Carrey’s dialogue is so marked that it almost feels like he made up his entire character on the spot. (I’m not declaring that he actually did. I’m just sayin’.) When he leers, “It’ll be fun to take you back to the lab for a litany of invasive exploratory procedures,” it reminds you that the Carrey personality was always built around cheeky new ways to bring the pain.
A review like this one should probably come with a disclaimer: For all the borderline tedium I felt at “Sonic the Hedgehog,” I do realize this is a picture made for 8-year-olds. And they’ll probably like it just fine. Yet I would also call the overly kiddified tone of the movie a mistake. The protesters who rallied for the changes in Sonic’s design by treating it as a line-in-the-sand issue, thereby demonstrating at least one reason why Donald Trump will probably be re-elected (we now have a generation that thinks this is a cause), were not 8-year-olds. As a movie hero, Sonic could (and should) have been hipper and sharper, less megaplex arrested. Even as they fixed his face, the filmmakers strove so hard to make him “likable” that they never figured out a way to make him cool.