This year’s Sonic the Hedgehog could have been the biggest hit of 1996, in ways both good and bad. From the movie’s shopworn one-liners, to the un-ironic use of the “Yup, that’s me, now you’re probably wondering how I got here” freeze-frame meme, to the spectacle of Jim Carrey (finally, thankfully) being Jim Carrey again, to the random Olive Garden jokes, to the fact that we’re watching, y’know, a Sonic the Hedgehog movie … the whole project feels like it was written, conceived, and green-lit decades ago. But that’s also part of its appeal. For all the frantic CGI fantasy — this is, after all, a children’s flick based on a SEGA video game about a spiny, speedy mammal from another dimension — Jeff Fowler’s film still has a modesty that feels like a throwback to a simpler blockbuster era.
Maybe that wasn’t the original intention. As pretty much everybody knows by now, early trailers for the movie featured a Sonic that was grittier, with distressingly well-defined teeth and photorealistic digital fur and a weird, rodent-like nose. The ensuing fan uprising prompted the studio to go back and redesign the character to make him look more like he did in the video games and comic books. Such post-post-production tomfoolery usually spells disaster, but the effects in the finished picture are mostly seamless. Aside from a couple of odd shots (was the earlier Sonic also supposed to be bigger?), the new and re-improved hedgehog looks like he was meant to be there all along. It helps, probably, that director Fowler is himself a VFX veteran.
The film finds Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) hiding out in the sleepy small town of Green Hills, Montana, where he’s landed after escaping from his home planet with the help of a bag of magical golden rings that allow him to instantly travel wherever he wants. He lives by himself, a petulant teenager playing guitar, wasting time on the treadmill, and reading “Flash” comic books in a mancave filled with stolen road signs, but he also longs for companionship. He loves to pretend to be a family with kindly Sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) and his veterinarian wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter), a local couple who have no idea that when they sit on the couch at night watching Speed together, there’s a wild blue alien perched outside their window watching along with them. Even this idealization of the nuclear family and small-town life feels like something from an older story — Kal-El by way of Steven Spielberg.
Sonic’s solitude gets the better of him, however. One night, while playing baseball with himself on the town’s deserted diamond and dreaming about how popular he’d be if anyone knew he existed, he starts sprinting the bases in an anxious, lonely, supersonic rage, and the resulting power surge wipes out electricity across the Northwestern United States. Then, government scientist Jim Carrey shows up with his army of drones, everything goes to hell, and the movie comes to life.
As the wild-eyed, mustachioed Dr. Robotnik, Sonic’s power-mad traditional nemesis, Carrey taps back into the unpredictable energies of his golden era: the jutting jaw, the exaggerated voice, the angular, surreal movements. And, perhaps most importantly, the velocity of his delivery: The script gives Sonic all sorts of desperate, hopelessly cliché quips, but it counterbalances them with Robotnik’s bizarre zingers, which Carrey revels in, constantly switching speed and volume to draw attention to their macho-absurdist bravado. (“I’m the top banana … in a world full of hungry monkeys.” “I see you’ve taken a lover. Does she have a name, or shall we call her ‘Collateral Damage’?” Trust me, it all sounds better coming out of his mouth.)
Carrey is the film’s most prized weapon, letting us wallow in the ridiculousness of this whole enterprise without ever holding himself above it. Quite the contrary, he overcommits in the best possible way. It’s like he never left us; you could half-imagine Sonic as a third Ace Ventura entry, only now the pet detective has lost his marbles and wants to experiment on small animals. His vitality makes an otherwise routine endeavor worthwhile. The movie is fine, but the villain’s a delight.