The Sonic I Want to See

by Em E. Lee 10 months ago in movie review

The new 'Sonic the Hedgehog' trailer is out and gives us SO much more to enjoy.

They did it.

I’m sure that went through everyone’s head while watching the newest trailer for the Sonic the Hedgehog film.

I cannot applaud the team at Paramount Pictures for taking valid criticism to heart and taking the time and resources to actually improve on what didn't work the first time around. I can't think of any other point in history when a director, let alone a studio as big as Paramount, listened closely to the fans and made appropriate changes—not to please petty fans, but out of love for the character and the desire to make him the best he could possibly be.

(Not to mention, can we just appreciate how this is the first time in a long time that the Sonic fanbase has been THIS unanimously positive about something new with the little blue fuzzball?)

Contrary to the majority, I honestly got used to the original trailer that sparked the backlash in the first place. I still didn't think it was very good, far from it, but it didn't feel worth the energy to froth at the mouth over anymore. I think it was a combination of feeling genuinely excited for a film about one of my favorite childhood characters, sympathizing with fellow fans whose first impressions were also less than stellar, and sympathizing with the creative team who'd still put hours of work and money into that trailer, only to have it go to waste because of the Internet's explosive reaction. Eventually I just stopped caring for it, along with the overwhelming negativity that felt shockingly strong, even for this fandom. Besides, by that point in time Jeff Fowler had already talked extensively about the new plan to release the film in February instead of November so that they could completely retool Sonic's design into something far more appealing; what was the point in whining about the old one then if it was just going to change anyway?

But now, six months later, we finally have the revised Sonic we were waiting for, and to call him new and improved is the understatement of the century.

There's such a stark contrast in quality between these two trailers that I can't believe they're for the same movie. Not only Sonic's looks, but the entire trailer got a full glow-up, as far as I'm concerned. It essentially took every misgiving I had with the original and tweaked it until it was perfect; where the original was bland or even awkward, the new one stuck in my head for all the right reasons. It actually felt like a trailer for a Sonic movie, high-energy and silly while still staying sincere (with special props to whoever had the idea to replace Gangster's Paradise with some significantly more appropriate Ramones tunes). The title character himself is given significantly more screentime, showing off all the animators' hard work into a creature you want to keep looking at instead of away from; his fur is a much deeper blue, his proportions rarely dip into the Uncanny Valley, and his face is the absolute best it could ever be. His eyes are significantly bigger (and therefore more expressive), actually proportionate to his head size, and—fixing one of my biggest issue with the original design's face—he actually has visible eyebrows. I might have got used to the original to the point of tolerating it, but when compared to this, if I might be frank, the original looks like a failed attempt at a graphic design thesis.

I still have the utmost respect for the animators and editors who worked on the first trailer and design, and I do genuinely empathize with them over their work getting torn apart like it was. But I cannot deny the significant boosts of quality that this one got that the original didn't. Now, I can't help but think of the original as the visual equivalent to a "You Tried" sticker.

But it takes way more than just a redesign and funnier jokes for a trailer to make me this excited for a film. Those of you who've read my past reviews already understand that I'm a huge proponent for characters and how to write the best of them—after all, why should you continue with any story if the characters aren't interesting?—and Sonic's boosted screentime in this new trailer absolutely sent my characterization-hyped heart into overdrive.

Photo of (from left to right) James Marsden, Ben Schwartz, Tika Sumpter, and Jim Carrey promoting Sonic the Hedgehog at CinemaCon 2019; photo taken by Alberto E. Rodriguez.

Watching Sonic in this new trailer reminded me of what actor Ben Schwartz had said before when asked about his portrayal of the character; he wanted to play Sonic as "this young kid that’s super excited and really wants to get after it and do all these things". This absolutely comes across in the trailer, especially when he gets excited about the prospect of going on a road trip with Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), the Green Hills cop whom I'm more convinced than ever will be playing the surrogate parent role to Sonic as the movie goes on; the most childlike moment in the entire trailer is definitely when he annoys Tom about seeing a gigantic rubber band ball, just as a young boy would annoy his dad.

But, as good as that is, I was honestly surprised at how much I enjoyed this childish portrayal of Sonic's character—and this was probably because of who he is in the games, where he's still young but significantly more mature, sarcastic, and secure than his movie-self (of course, I'm referring mostly to the modern 3D Sonic, not the 16-bit, 2-dimensional classic one). That portrayal was at the forefront of my mind every time he appeared onscreen, which did create a slight sense of cognitive dissonance. What surprises me even more is that, despite that, plus my own hatred of taking normally serious characters and making them uncharacteristically silly or juvenile for no reason (other than, maybe, to make nobody but two-year-olds laugh), I fell in love with this new version of Sonic. Even with the dissonance, it felt refreshing, and after thinking on it for a while, I realized the obvious reason why.

Screenshot of Sonic and Tom riding in a car; image and characters belong to Paramount Pictures and SEGA.

Every official character profile the guy's had since his conception has asserted that Sonic is supposed to be 15 years old; this, along with a go-get-em attitude that was inspired by Bill Clinton (no I'm not joking), was intended by SEGA to appeal to the 1990's North American gaming market, back when the console wars were still alive and raging. He was supposed to be a "cool" character, contrasting the happy-go-lucky Mario over at Nintendo and, therefore, earning a larger fanbase in the West than the Goomba-stomping plumber. But does he ever really act his age? Only in the games, not the comics or animated shows, does he come across as a 15-year-old? Definitely not now, after games like Colors, Lost World, and especially Forces. Sure, they all still have their moments of him goofing around and laughing, but for the most part, the most recent modern Sonic games tend to show the blue blur at his most serious. Ever since Sonic Unleashed, I would say, he’s been cracking less jokes and keeping himself totally focused on protecting the world from the latest threat. Not even Shadow the Hedgehog or the Adventure series kept his aloofness down for that long. But I don’t think the writers did this to make him “edgier”, far from it; I take it as a sign that he’s growing up. What helps this impression is Roger Craig Smith’s vocal performance, one significantly deeper than Jason Griffith or Ryan Drummond’s ever was. Because of this, I can’t bring myself to say that Sonic (at least, the modern 3D Sonic) is 15 anymore; by now, he should be at least 17 or 18.

Movie-Sonic, on the other hand, seems to hearken back to the pre-Unleashed portrayals, when he still felt like a young character—still the archetypal hero he's always been, but nevertheless still a child. He's naive, excitable, and finds enjoyment in even the smallest things, such as when he and Tom are fleeing the bar and he can't help but slide off the hood of the car into the open window to his seat, something he'd "always wanted to do"; even the way he shouts a triumphant "Nailed it!" is adorably appropriate for a kid his age.

Screenshot of Sonic speaking to Tom (foreground); image and characters belong to Paramount Pictures and SEGA.

Not only that, but Sonic also shows the appropriate levels of vulnerability you'd expect from a teenager. The image above perfectly captures this; in this moment he’s far from the cool-headed cocky delinquent we know from the games, but a frightened child desperate for protection from the very thing he’s terrified of. To add to the parent-child dynamic even more, he’s begging for help from the only adult figures in his life that he trusts. He doesn’t know how to take care of himself in this situation, he’s totally alone, so he turns to the grown-ups for guidance and safety.

This actually really surprises me, seeing this sort of vulnerability come from Sonic, when SEGA is so restrictive with how to depict the guy’s emotions (for instance, you can’t show him crying. Ever. Why? You just can’t). But it’s a much-appreciated surprise for sure; characters are crucial to any story, but for film they need to have a dynamic arc and they must be expressive enough so that the audience can identify with them. I’m definitely happy that the film team had the creative freedom to do this with Sonic’s character, and if its as good as it appears in this trailer, then hands-down it’ll be as memorable a video game film as the beauty that is Detective Pikachu.

Overall, this trailer makes me far more excited about the film than any of its prior promotions—not just for the reasons I explained at the start, but for the interesting breakdown of the title character’s story. We’ll get to see the hypothetical story before even first game, before Robotnik starts his plans, before Sonic became the confident hero we all know. I personally am fascinated by this prospect, and I sincerely hope the final product delivers on it.

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You can watch the second Sonic the Hedgehog trailer here:

movie review
Em E. Lee
Em E. Lee
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Em E. Lee

Writer-of-all-trades and self-appointed "professional" nerd with an infinite supply of story ideas and not nearly enough time to write them down. Lover of all media, especially fiction and literature. Proud advocate of the short story.

See all posts by Em E. Lee