2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog was a lot better than it really had any right to be, borne along on a tide of audience good-will, easy-going charm, and a fun throw-back performance by Jim Carrey. I was pleased with it and looking forward to the promised sequel.
Well, now I’ve seen the sequel (actually, I saw it a few weeks ago. I really have to get faster at these things) and…alas, it’s not very good.
The story kicks off some time after the first one, with Dr. Robotnik stranded on ‘the Mushroom Planet’. He sends a distress signal into space, which brings a ring portal carrying Knuckles, the last of the Echidnas. Knuckles is hunting for Sonic and, with him, the Master Emerald that was the great treasure and weapon of his people, and which Sonic’s late guardian had helped to hide on Earth. Robotnik, of course, is eager to acquire it and forms an alliance with the powerful, but dim-witted echidna.
Meanwhile on Earth, Sonic is trying to be a superhero, but his recklessness and childish disregard for consequences means he really does more harm than good. When his adopted family leave him alone for a weekend, however, he’s ambushed by Robotnik and Knuckles, but saved by the newly arrived Tails. Together they set out to find the Master Emerald before Robotnik does.
Honestly, the set up and the first, say, half-hour to forty-five minutes of this movie is perfectly fine as far as it goes. I like the opening, with Robotnik using his mechanical genius to be a dangerous threat even with minimal technology, and the premise of Sonic wanting to be heroic, but not really being mature enough to handle it is a solid foundation. The Master Emerald plot is likewise a perfectly good backbone for the film.
It’s really in the execution that things start to go off the rails.
But before we go into specifics, you have to understand that there is one all-pervading issue that is present almost throughout the movie; the jokes, pop-culture references, and improv almost never stops. There was a fair amount of that in the first film, but in this it feels like they told Jim Carrey and Ben Schwartz to just keep going every second they were on screen (except for a few dramatic bits where they at last tone it down, but only briefly). It gets very old very fast and is a constant source of irritation throughout the movie all the way up to the climax. There are pop-culture references on top of other pop-culture references, and quips meant to draw your attention to the fact that the reference you are seeing is a reference. It’s all really, really annoying and a constant albatross on the film’s neck.
Most of them aren’t even good jokes either. Like at once point Sonic gets chased by Knuckles on a snow-swept mountain and says “Oh, great; the Winter Soldier”. That’s not funny; that’s just noting another film you might have seen.
(By the way, I re-visited some of Sonic Boom after seeing this. The interesting thing is that that show is practically nothing but jokes…and yet it still comes off as better constructed and less desperate than this. Probably because the jokes there generally have some body to them; a set-up, a pay-off, a bit of cleverness and character. For instance:
Tails: “We’ll be able to see anything coming with my ‘Tail-escope’.”
Sonic: “How is a ‘Tail-escope’ different from a ‘telescope’?”
Tails (defeated tone): “It’s not.”)
Like I say, the fetch-quest plot is perfectly acceptable, if by-the-numbers: find the thing that leads us to the really important thing and oh no, the bad guy got the really important thing and now we need to get it back. That outline has been done a million times since the days of the serials (might be interesting to look up who actually pioneered it, though I think Raiders of the Lost Ark must be considered the definitive example), but there’s no harm in copying successful formulae as long as you do them well. This isn’t done especially well, but it’s not awful either: we get some cool, creative environments (some of which feel like they came straight out of the games) and a decent payoff with a giant robot.
Though it does tie into the absolutely horrible world-building. In the first film they posited that Sonic was an alien from a distant world of presumably all cartoon forest animals. That’s fine; they didn’t explain much and they didn’t have to. But here, that premise gets expanded a bit, and it pretty much collapses completely. Does Tails come from the same world as Sonic? Where is that? He makes reference to a community and describes Knuckles as ‘the most dangerous warrior in the galaxy’. So, there’s an interplanetary civilization of cartoon forest animals out there? And they all have teleportation rings (since Knuckles and Tails both use them)? Then…okay, that raises an enormous amount of questions that the film doesn’t even attempt to answer. Who are Knuckles’s three henchmen in the opening, and why do we never see them again? If Tails was able to pick up on Sonic’s energy signature, why hasn’t anyone else (granted, Tails is a genius, but Knuckles was able to pick up on Robotnik’s distress call, so…)?
Also, it makes no sense that Robotnik wouldn’t try to learn as much as he can about these space-faring civilizations with teleportation technology, given what we know about him.
Furthermore, it raises questions about the backstory; if the owls were so concerned about keeping the Master Emerald a secret, why hide both it and the thing that tells you how to get to it on the same planet? In fact, given how easy it is to break, why not break it and hide the Chaos Emeralds separately? (Though to be fair, ancient peoples utilizing extremely stupid, counter-intuitive means to hide artifacts of limitless power is not remotely unique to this film, so we can probably give them a pass for this).
In any case, the revised origin is still just being used to hand-wave the introduction of characters, but the means by which those characters are being brought in raises so many questions that simply didn’t come up in the first film. It has grown to the point where continuing to ignore it it is becoming very conspicuous and making the whole story come across as increasingly thin and flimsy, like a stage play where you’re just not supposed to think about any of it.
It also gets in the way of Sonic and Tails’s backstory, though to their credit the writers really try to make it work. The idea, traditionally, is that Tails was bullied and ostracized for his second tail, until Sonic befriended him and showed him how he could turn the deformity to his advantage.
They do try to catch that, with Tails mentioning how he tracked the energy blast Sonic made at the start of the first film and has been watching him ever since, admiring and taking inspiration from a distance. That’s a lot less charming than the original backstory (and Sonic’s understandably a little weirded out at first), and it robs us of what could have been some really heartwarming moments. But at least they were trying.
Indeed, I’d say that applies to the whole of Sonic and Tails’s relationship in this film; it isn’t given enough focus or screen time, but you can tell they were at least trying to get it right, and what we get is pretty good as far as it goes, aided by Colleen O’Shaughnessey’s effortlessly sincere reprisal of Tails.
What about Knuckles? Well, Knuckles is…fine for the most part. Idris Elba is obviously a very good actor, and though he’s not really bringing his A-game here he at least sells the character well enough.
There’s kind of an odd tone with Knuckles where he starts off dead-serious, but slowly becomes more and more comedic and ridiculous as the film goes on, finally ending up as pretty much a Drax the Destroyer clone. Granted he’s supposed to be rather dim-witted, but in my view a more consistent and maybe more level-headed approach would have been preferable. I like Knuckles more as the general tough-guy and grumpy comparative straight-man of the trio, not the out-of-touch proud warrior idiot. So, if Sonic’s the street-wise cool dude and Tails is the eager tag-along, Knuckles is the brooding meat-headed biker who deigns to tolerate them (I didn’t care for the ‘total idiot’ take in Sonic Boom either, though at least that was more consistent). It isn’t really a bad characterization, and he has a number of good moments, but it could have been a lot better.
As noted, Jim Carey is really cutting loose this time on the Jim Careyness, more so than in the first one, and his schtick wears out its welcome fast. In the first film he was at least given several scenes of decent development and quiet menace; he wasn’t riffing non-stop. Here he still has a few of the latter (especially when he and Sonic meet up again for the first time), but they’re brief and he’s allowed to go crazy much too much, including at times when it really isn’t called for (e.g. the scene where he betrays Knuckles – no that’s not a spoiler, come on – should be menacing and cruel Eggman, not Eggs Ventura). This is something I was worried about from the trailer and, well, the film pretty much confirms it. There’s too much Jim Carey and not enough Robotnik.
Also, they don’t bother to give him any kind of real motivation. In the first film he expressed hatred for willful, unpredictable, inefficient living things as opposed to cool, logical machinery. That’s good; that fits and serves as an excellent contrast with Sonic. They could have done something like that here, with him wanting to bring the world under his control because only his genius knows what it needs. Instead he simply wants power for power’s sake, with a dash of revenge on Sonic. Which is another instance of the film making itself shallower than it needs to be.
The biggest problem with the film for me, though (apart from the quipping overdose), is the bizarre bloat. We’re not talking endless pointless action scenes or something: that might have at least been cool. Instead there are these downright strange, stupid, and way-overlong sequences that make it only too clear the filmmakers were struggling to make a two-hour mark.
The first is when Sonic and Tails end up in a Siberian bar, where the locals first decide to kill them(!), then accept a challenge to a dance off(?!). Sonic then swaps out the local music for a rap beat (or something) and they win. This goes on for a long time, and it’s just such an odd thing to happen. And yes, Sonic forgets his powers when they’re being threatened with death, only to remember them when he needs to plug in his phone. And the Siberians who were ready to murder them one minute ago are now dancing and cheering to the foreign music and urging them on. Right.
This is supposed to be the big bonding adventure for Sonic and Tails and…really? That’s what they came up with as the great friendship-sealing experience for this iconic duo? Again, it’s just such an odd concept and goes on for so long that I can only imagine it was an effort to meet run-time requirements.
(By the way, long as the sequence felt, there’s no way the hyper-muscled Siberian dancer is exhausted to the point of collapse after that. This is the kind of guy who dances the whole long Siberian winter night away and still has the energy to make love to big Slavic beauties at the end of it).
But that doesn’t compare to what happens later. See, part of the plot has James Marsden and his wife leaving to attend the wedding of her angry sister (AKA the most annoying part of the first film). That’s fine; that gets them out of the way for Sonic and Tails to go on their adventure, and of course our heroes rejoin them at the worst possible time (meanwhile, chiseled ex-superhero Marsden gets to feel comically inadequate next to the ultra-fit groom and his friends. The film very carefully has him keep his shirt on the whole time in the hopes that we won’t notice that he’s clearly just as well-muscled as they are. Not really a criticism, I just find it kind of funny).
All that is fine as far as it goes; predictable and safe, but no harm done. But then when Sonic and Tails show up (Tails injured and unconscious from their last fight, by the way), we suddenly veer into the revelation that the groom is actually an agent of G.U.N. (the government agency from the games, and kudos for bringing them in), and the whole thing was a conspiracy to trap Sonic! Then wife and angry sister then have an action-comedy sequence where they use Tails’s tech to try to break the two out of prison, and the angry sister confronts the groom about oh, was it all a lie, and….
…And about this point I found myself wanting to channel Crow T. Robot and shout “WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH ANYTHING!?”
This whole sequence takes about ten minutes or more, during which Sonic and Tails are pretty much completely sidelined. We shuffle Sonic and Tails off-screen while Tails is seriously injured and Sonic is dealing with frantic anxiety and guilt over it in order to spend a good long time on angry sister and her relationship drama? Who the hell thought that one up?! It would have been bad at any time, but coming then, at this critical moment for our two heroes, is an appallingly terrible choice.
Also, there’s a bit where James Marsden mixes up one of the wedding rings with Sonic’s portal ring because he was playing with the ring bearer. How is that even possible? Given how insanely valuable that portal ring is, wouldn’t he have it secured in its own little pouch around his neck or something so that it can’t, by any chance, get lost? Not to mention, how would it even get into his hand in the context of that scene? Do the filmmakers think that just having two roughly similar objects on your person at the same time means they’ll inevitably cross paths or something?
Moreover, G.U.N.’s plan makes no sense. So they want to capture Sonic, fine. Their plan is (apparently) to plant agents on and around the angry sister who lives hundreds of miles away and doesn’t get along with Marsden, rather than stationing them in the town where they know he lives? And it isn’t like Sonic is being especially subtle either; he pretty much just zooms about in the open all the time. You’re telling me the government can’t find the bright-blue cartoon character, despite knowing the small town where his friends live and despite him committing very public acts of semi-vigilantism on a fairly regular basis? Instead they’re all prepared to grab him in Hawaii, a place where his presence is a complete accident that no one could have possibly predicted?
None of this is at all necessary. You could have skipped from Sonic and Tails’ arrival to the scene where Sonic sets off alone and you would have lost absolutely nothing but a lot of wasted time (oh, and angry sister and her fiancé never show up again for the rest of the film either, making the whole thing doubly pointless, like its own little film stuck in the middle of this one). Heck, you would have given time for Sonic’s remorse to breathe a little, further developing his character and deepening his relationship with Tails. What there is of his remorse is fine, but if you’re going to spend time on anything, you should be spending time on that, not this dead-end subplot with an annoying side-character.
Something else this film highlights for me: Ben Schwartz is not a very good actor, especially compared to Roger Craig Smith (Sonic’s most recent VA from the games and animated shows). He has a thin, high-pitched voice that lacks conviction in the dramatic scenes, sounding as though he’s straining himself to try to convey the necessary gravitas. Smith’s voice is much deeper and more assured, and he has the experience to know how to tune it to the needs of the scene.
Colleen O’Shaughnessey’s reprisal of Tails only makes the difference that much more noticeable. She at least does a fine job, probably because she knows exactly how to play the character by now, and Tails has every bit of the youthful enthusiasm and heart that he ought to have. He’s pretty much just stepped right out from the game world into that of the movie. Which kind of creates an odd effect, like having an understudy or a last-minute re-casting brought in to a long-running show, where she is so right in the role that it makes Schwartz feel out of place.
James Marsden doesn’t have as much to do this time, but he’s perfectly adequate as usual, and his step-dad dynamic with Sonic is actually played fairly well, even if it gets rather lost among all the other crazy stuff that happens (another thing that might have been a better use of screen time). Their relationship is still pretty charming, with him trying to lay down the law and Sonic resenting it (“You’re my friend. Stop trying to be my dad”), but not to the point of an actual rift.
Jumping back to the G.U.N. subplot, though, we learn that Agent Stone, Eggman’s sidekick from the first film, has opened a coffee shop in Green Hills (he’s also been given a more emphatic, ah, Mr. Smithers dynamic with Robotnik). You’re telling me that no one noticed or cared that the mad scientist’s loyal assistant set up shop in Sonic’s hometown? Really? All the more reason to ask why G.U.N. isn’t swarming the place with their agents instead of working the stupid convoluted marriage plot.
And there are a lot of just generally stupid things. Why does grabbing the Emerald cause Robotnik to absorb it, while everyone else can just carry it around normally? Why can Knuckles subsequently punch it out of him? Why is it so easy both to break and re-form the Emerald? Actually, why did the Chaos Emeralds react with Sonic at all in the climax when, as I recall, he wasn’t doing anything with them? Did they sense his goodness or something? And why are the heroes so cavalier about the Emerald in the epilogue, given how important it is?
Back to the positive, though, is the fact that, when the G.U.N. commander learns that Robotnik is back, he immediately re-focuses from Sonic to him. I like that; the potentially dangerous weird alien is a lower-priority target than the actually dangerous psychopath. Also the fact that, even drunk with power, Robotnik still has the foresight to put manual-backup controls into his giant robot.
And I will say in its favor that at least the films seem to be actually trying to follow the storylines of the games, with the Master Emerald, Knuckles, the giant Eggman Robot, and so on. Just that they went ahead and portrayed these elements and did them more or less straight is commendable. Seeing Sonic and Knuckles throw down on the big scree is pretty cool, and the crazy creativity the brings us from secret, trap-filled temples to a rampaging kaiju-sized robot is great. The three central characters all coming together for the climax was also pretty cool to see, and I like Sonic’s logic for how to make the most of their skills, showing flashes of the genuine hero behind the cockiness. It’s all rather surface level, but what it has in this regard is good as far as it goes.
Which is another thing; though I think this is overall a bad film, it’s not a malicious one. They’re not setting out to undermine Sonic or the other characters, as they very easily could have done (e.g. by making Sonic be a jerk to Tails, which would have been unacceptable). Whatever else may be said of the performance, Sonic’s still a good guy who wants to be a hero and who feels responsible when he makes mistakes, who is willing to listen to his enemies and try to find common ground, and so on.
There are some very good moments in the film. Like a bit where Sonic psychs himself up to run across water (he can’t swim, so it’s a real challenge), prompting him to turn his catchphrase – “Gotta go fast” – into a kind of heroic build-up. That’s excellent. Again, the Sonic-Tails dynamic is mostly on-point, and there are some good jokes buried in there. Like when Robotnik, after living on mushrooms for months, returns to earth and tastes one of Stone’s lattes, he comments, “Needs mushroom juice.” And the ending, with team Sonic playing baseball, does tie in very nicely with the first film.
Oh, and I completely called it that the film would have a tease for Shadow in the end credits. And it’s not a bad little scene, as these things go. I’m also guessing that they’ll bring Amy into things next time to get that sweet female demographic moving. And…God help me, I’m actually still curious to see what they’ll do with them
As I say, though it’s not a good film, I don’t think it’s malicious. It’s just incompetent. A matter of the filmmakers not really knowing how to handle the story, or perhaps being hampered by outside pressure. They needed to rein in Carey and Schwartz more, give greater weight to Robotnik and to the serious moments in general, spend more time on Sonic and Tails’s friendship, and dropped the extraneous nonsense.
It’s all the more frustrating because I can see a lot of very simple ways the film could have been much better, if only someone had exercised a little more good judgment and a little more care. It was never going to be a classic, but I was hoping for something at least as harmless and charming as the first one. Unfortunately, they dropped the ball.