“SONIC THE HEDGEHOG” — 2 1/2 stars — James Marsden, Ben Schwartz, Jim Carrey, Tika Sumpter; PG; in general release; running time: 99 minutes
A blue hedgehog with lightning speed shouldn’t seem real — there is literally no need. And that is, it turns out, the key to a movie like “Sonic the Hedgehog” actually working.
The new movie, an adaptation of the classic Sega Genesis video game, hits theaters nationwide on Feb. 13, and has garnered an unusual amount of coverage since its first trailer dropped last May. That trailer was, in a word, unnerving: Sonic looked half-hedgehog, half-human — the kind of nightmarish hybrid that made us all avoid “Cats.” Fans took their grievances online, and what do you know, the film’s animators changed Sonic’s CGI. Now he resembles the Sonic we all know and love. Who says complaining never gets you anything?
“Sonic the Hedgehog” is a movie that, across the board, decided realism is bad. And thank goodness for that. It probably would have been terrible otherwise.
To my knowledge — and I could be wrong here; I haven’t kept up on “Sonic” lore — this hedgehog doesn’t have much backstory. He’s blue, he goes fast, he catches gold rings. The movie wastes little time on exposition. Briskly, we see Sonic on his home planet, chased by villains who want to exploit his super-speed. Those gold rings can become portals, and Sonic’s guardian (a wise owl for some reason?) sends Sonic to Earth. She gives him a little baggie of gold rings, imploring Sonic to keep his presence and powers hidden.
Our orphan makes the most of a bad situation. Hiding in the picturesque town of Green Hills, Montana, Sonic splits time between his decked-out man cave (which is literally a cave) and watching his neighbors from afar, living vicariously through their Little League games, movie nights and other acts of small town wholesomeness. He’s especially fond of the town sheriff, Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), and his wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter).
But the isolation wears on him. In a fit of angst one night, Sonic accidentally goes full Palpatine, unleashing a blast of blue lightning that knocks out power across the Pacific Northwest. The U.S. government gets curious, and sends the film’s baddie, Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey), to investigate.
Carrey is absurd here, a throwback to his Ace Ventura/Riddler/Grinch roles. And, I imagine, he’s likely the reason people will go see this movie. Clad in well-tailored, angular black clothing, his Dr. Robotnik preens, and berates, and makes cunning plan after cunning plan — all to secure Sonic’s immense power for his own army of robots. Carrey’s physicality isn’t quite as elastic as it was 20 years ago, and at times he seems to phone it in here, but he still summons enough goofiness to make Dr. Robotnik an entertaining heel. The source material for this movie, after all, is pretty scant. He’s making something of nothing.
Ben Schwartz, who played the hilariously obnoxious man-child Jean-Ralphio on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” voices Sonic. It’s hard not to imagine Jean-Ralphio while watching this movie, and that ends up being helpful. (Come to think of it, Jean-Ralphio’s hair looked a lot like Sonic’s.) Schwartz brings a motor-mouthed energy that suits the character well, and also infuses Sonic with emotional earnestness that helps a silly movie still feel relatable. “Sonic the Hedgehog” is essentially a Schwartz/Marsden buddy comedy, and the two manage to have good chemistry despite Schwartz remaining physically offscreen.
Now, “Sonic the Hedgehog” isn’t a great movie. But it is a decently good movie, ultimately because it’s self aware. It has the good sense to not take itself too seriously, while still recognizing that a well-told story requires characters with real feelings, real thoughts and real motivations. Sonic may be a cartoonish blue hedgehog from another planet, but he remains just real enough for us to play along.
Rating explained: “Sonic the Hedgehog” is rated PG for action, some violence, rude humor and brief mild language