His eyes are bigger, his fur is smoother, and his teeth are no longer disturbingly human. Yes, this version of Sonic the Hedgehog that’s zipping into theaters is much less unpleasant to look at than the one unveiled to widespread ridicule last year, when the first trailer for his first big-screen adventure dropped. Post-the redesign that was all but commissioned by Twitter, you might even call the little blue fella cute, in a plush-doll kind of way. Then he opens his mouth, and you maybe wish those ghastly teeth were still there, if only to distract from the lazy wisecracks, pop culture references, and earnest clichés that come flooding out. Sonic’s first line of dialogue? “I know what you’re thinking,” uttered in voice-over and slathered on top of a freeze frame of the climax. Yes, it’s that kind of movie, so if you’re still looking for the first great video game movie, sorry this isn’t it.
Born at the height of the sixteen-bit console wars, as Sega’s answer to Mario, Sonic was basically an emblem of kid-courting ’90s attitude: cool but rude like Raphael of the Ninja Turtles, an irreverent trouble-maker with spiky hair like Bart Simpson, an animal mascot with a need for X Games speed. That’s not really the vibe of this big-screen Sonic. As voiced by Ben Schwartz, he’s more of a plucky dreamer who just wants to make some friends. That’s not so easy for the guy — in part because he’s at times annoyingly hyperactive, in the vein of a kid who’s just wolfed down three bowls of sugary cereal. Oh, and there’s also the fact that this version of Sonic is from outer space and hence has to lay low, so no one can try to capture him and harness his super speed. The opening minutes of Sonic the Hedgehog are arguably the most promising when the Paramount logo is surrounded by rings, the music plays a variation on the Green Hill Zone from the games, and we’re taken into the checker-box, loop-de-loop world of Sonic’s home. But it doesn’t take long before we abandon that world and head to Small Town, USA. And it’s that move of taking the action to our world that makes Sonic a little less interesting. The character becomes more mundane and trapped by our conveniences (He likes comic books! He has a beanbag chair!) rather than the weirdness of his video game where woodland creatures are trapped in robots and power-ups are stashed in computer monitors.
To be fair, they are translating a ’90s platformer. And that small town that he’s wound up in is the quant Green Hills, Montana. And you’d think such a poky place would be torture for someone who can move faster than the speed of sound. But no, Sonic loves Green Hills so much that he’s basically a one-man (or I guess one-hog?) tourism board. Really, the whole movie practically plays like propaganda for the virtues of small-town life. Sharing protagonist duties with this digitally rendered cheerleader is Office Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), a local cop whose only character flaw is that he’s considering (gasp!) moving to San Francisco, where he might get to solve some real crimes instead of stopping traffic so some ducks can cross the road. There’s also the bad guy, arrogant scientist and drone commander Dr. Robotnik, played by Jim Carrey with a mustache only slightly less outrageous than the one the character sports in the games. Robotnik considers himself superior to everyone, but he’s especially condescending to the honest, simple folk of Green Hills.
It’s an electrical disturbance caused by our hero’s velocity that puts him on the radar of the U.S. military. Following a series of plot complications not worth recounting, Sonic guilt-trips Officer Wachowski into a road trip to San Fran, Robotnik and his gadgets in hot pursuit. Why does someone who can cross the whole country on foot in maybe a mere minute need a ride? Well, he doesn’t know where he’s going, the screenplay by Patrick Casey and Josh Miller half-assedly rationalizes. Though Marsden has chauffeured an obnoxious CGI animal companion before (i.e. Hop), his chemistry with this talking visual effect is still pretty spotty. That could be because Sonic, theoretically sympathetic for his alien-orphan backstory, is actually kind of a selfish jerk — when he’s not starting bar fights just for the experience, he’s getting pretty judgmental about his new companion’s career aspirations. At best, Tom seems to begrudgingly tolerate the hedgehog, which might be more than plenty of parents in the audience can manage. (For genuine albeit unintentional laughs, they’ll have to settle for some blatant product placement, including a Zillow plug and multiple shoutouts to Olive Garden.)
You could call Sonic the Hedgehog a wannabe E.T., except that might require imagining a version of Steven Spielberg’s classic where the extraterrestrial flosses, makes bad Uber jokes, and lectures Elliot about not appreciating what he already has. The film rises not even above the low bar of your average video game adaptation: last summer’s Detective Pikachu was lousy, too, but it at least offered some shoddy spectacle in the spirit of its source material. As said before, here instead we get Sonic hanging in drab roadhouses, suburban kitchens, and in the passenger seat of a car driving down a nondescript highway! Even the scant bursts of action are unremarkable; the best director Jeff Fowler can offer is a weak knockoff of the “Time In a Bottle” sequence from X-Men: Days of Future Past. Only Carrey, half-committing to some recycled uptight-madman shtick, ever threatens to rocket Sonic the Hedgehog out of its one-size-fits-all narrative. You almost want to root for Robotnik, in the sense that if the bad guy wins at least we would have gotten something worthwhile. Practically instantaneously forgettable, Sonic the Hedgehog is a prattling chore of a “family” comedy that feels directed by a machine, written by committee, and coated in triteness.