The Sonic Movie. Could a Toon Design Actually Work in Live-Action?
An Opinion Piece
Oh, boy; here we go. So a couple of weeks ago we got our first glimpse at Sonic’s design for next year's Sonic movie, and well, it’s sure a sight to behold. Those juicy legs look like they could crack some walnuts.
Okay, now, we’ve seen all of the memes, photoshopped pictures and criticisms everyone has had with the design. And yeah, I agree with it all; there’s not much I can criticize or joke about at this point that hasn’t been said before (although it won’t stop me from trying).
But, what’s with all the shock? Surely a year ago when it was announced that the film would be live action, we had to have known this was going to happen, right?
Well, in all fairness, we weren’t exactly sure what to expect. Hell, I wasn’t sure either. You see, realistic Sonic design could be interpreted in several different ways depending on what you’re going for.
This fan-made edit, for example, removes the muscles and fixes some of the proportions, streamlining things a bit while not straying far away from the realistic angle. I kinda like it honestly. It’s a nice compromise fusing elements of the modern design we’re used to while feeling like something that could exist in our world, or at least feel as if it fits.
Then you have the recently leaked concept design from a year ago...
It’s admittedly kinda cute, but not perfect.
Gone are the surreal M Bison thighs and large helmet size head that made him look like a dwarf in a fursona cosplay. I appreciate how it still attempts to represent the youthful carefree spirit of the character, but it’s still far from perfect.
While objectively, it’s fine, it’s also a huge departure from the core aspects of the character so that it makes you question if there’s even a point in calling him Sonic.
But yeah, we really didn’t know what to expect with the idea, as live-action adaptations have no absolutes or concrete rules to adhere to based on what the creators or producers are doing. Are we trying to reimagine how these characters or creatures would look and work biologically in our world? Or are we simply trying to bring them to life?
With the Sonic movie, this design seems to embrace the former. It’s clear that the muscular build on his thighs and torso are meant to visually represent how athletic Sonic is. He does parkour and runs extremely fast all day after all. I’d imagine that someone running at the speed of sound would develop impenetrable pieces of meats.
And the shoes have been changed to sports sneakers similar to the one's athletes and track runners use.
But, in their pursuit for accuracy, the visual appeal suffers greatly. It’s off-putting to see human-like proportions and body parts on what’s meant to be a cartoon, especially if the face ends up looking cute based on what the Brazilian leak for an unreleased teaser trailer is anything to go by.
Then there’s the fact that we don’t know how it’ll actually look like in motion, so while still images and frames can be passable, the movement on this thing could make it fall apart in an instant.
An example of the latter where the designs are simply trying to bring the characters to life would have to be in the upcoming Detective Pikachu movie. It’s another live-action video game adaptation with cartoonish character designs.
Now, the trailer for this film has been universally adored by many with the designs of the Pokemon being praised upon, and at worst, simply having mixed feelings.
The reason I believe this is the case is simply because when designing the Pokemon for this film they stayed true to the soft and curved proportions these creatures exhibit while simply coating them with realistic textures according to their species. Scales, fur, feathers and uh, whatever the hell Mr. Mime’s supposed to be made of.
His shoulder pads kinda remind me of rubber basketballs.
But back on topic. I believe that this is an important point of discrepancy here. Pokemon aren’t biologically realistic creatures to begin with, not even in the Detective Pikachu film either.
Jigglypuff is just a ball; his lack of proper legs and stubby arms are so short that he couldn’t walk around properly without stumbling, and he couldn’t reach out to grab or take of a hold of things. Living with a body like that would be a nightmare.
Mr. Mimes noodle legs wouldn’t be strong enough to hold him up properly, and his lack of neck would make it impossible for him to turn his head.
And then you have the added baggage of these creatures even being able to use their special moves, like an organic being spitting fire or endless supply water from their mouths.
And don’t even get me started with the ones that look like food or everyday objects.
From what I remember, fans were immediately dismissive of that change when it was revealed, and were quick to prefer the concept art of the final version we got at 0:29, for obvious reasons. So it’s clear that everyone at the time was onboard with his design, it was the quality of the model that didn’t deliver.
Looking back on that film now, nothing about the CG has aged well actually. Sonic’s fur shaders look horrible as strands of wire floating above his skin, the lighting of the model doesn’t match the scenery most of the time, and he never fully interacts with the environment. For example, there are scenes where he’s running on grass, but it never moves with his footsteps.
It’s clear that Blue Core just didn’t have the budget or tools necessary to pull the CG in an effective and convincing way. And while I’m no expert on Hollywood VFX, I do watch a lot of behind the scenes production footage to get an idea of what’s needed for these type of projects, and Blue Core was clearly lacking a lot.
If you look at the behind the scenes footage from the Sonic film on their channel, a lot of the shots where Sonic is supposed to be superimposed later don’t use any sort of tracking technology on where the character is supposed to be. You know? It’s those grey suits actors in Marvel movies wear so the computer can track their movements and add in the CG character later?
And if the character isn’t played by an actor, they just use a dummy of sorts as a placeholder to animate them by hand later.
The Sonic fan film movie didn’t have any of this from what I can tell. They just filmed a couple of moving shots and empty frames to later just paste him in.
So yeah, it was never going to look good. Nothing in that movie looks like its really there, no even the damn robots. It’s why I believe that this is a very poor example as to why a cartoon Sonic couldn’t work in live-action as the execution there was pretty mediocre. It’s not even a fair measuring scale here on how he’d even clash with the realism, because again, he never looked real in that film, to begin with.
You wanna know what other fan project that tried to bring cartoon video game characters to life on a limited budget? Pokemon!
Yeah! Remember this little fan-made gem from 8 years ago? Pokemon apokelypse, a fan-made trailer of a, supposed Holywood dark take on the franchise. And, man. If you thought the CG on the Sonic fan-film looked bad, just look at their version of Pikachu.
Pikachu, as Seen in 'Pokemon Apokelypse'
Oh my god! It’s the stuff of nightmares.
And it wasn’t just the designs that were the problem. Just like the Sonic Fan-film, it didn’t look like they were ever there. The interaction with the environment was non-existent and the animations on some of them look janky.
But, in all fairness, it’s a fan film. Of course, the CG is bad; of course, it’s going to look off. But, with a better budget, better tools, and talented artist, eight years later we moved from that previous abomination to this:
Now, I’m being a little harsh here as not all of the Pokemon in that previous fan-made trailer were designed as the originals. Pikachu and Ivysaur there have clear different proportions from their anime counterparts as I’m assuming they were trying to make them move and look like real animals, so there’s that.
However, the design philosophy in Apokelypse seems to be all over the place, with some Pokemon actually looking like they do in the games, and others taking certain liberties.
But yeah, going back to Sonic, there’s no doubt in my mind that a capable team of CG animators along with some proper tracking tools could make his cartoon design work on live-action. A silly idea could work with good execution.
So what would the second hurdle to overcome be? Well, simply put, we need a proper context.
The Sonic series, or, the games, in particular, tend to suffer from something TV tropes.com labels as “Furry Confusion.”
If you haven’t heard about this phenomena, the quick rundown of it is that a traditional cartoon setting tends to be composed of a world of anthropomorphic animals. They walk upright like us, talk, live a human lifestyle, go to work, pay taxes, etc. And we tend to accept it without a problem as it’s merely a setting of fiction. However, things begin to get complicated when you introduce animals that don’t act or look humanlike into this same setting.
The most common example of this is how in the Mickey Mouse series Pluto looks and behaves like an average dog (as average as a cartoon representation of a dog can be that is), yet, in this same world you have characters or dog-like humans such as Goofy and his family that walk around as bipedal living human lives.
The Sonic series equivalent of this would pretty much be the entire main cast of characters compared to the woodland creatures Sonic usually saves such as the flickies. And when you throw humans into the mix, things tend to get even weirder.
Problem is that Sonic never does this. The games never establish that more human-like animals like him roam around, as the very few we ever see are him and his friends, with 90% of the population consisting humans in most games.
Now, Sonic Forces finally perpetuated the idea that more anthromorps do exist in Sonic’s world aside from the main cast. But, even this was quickly dismissed by Takashi Izuka (Current director at Sonic Team) in an interview where he claimed that there are actually two separate worlds the games take place. A human world, and a world with animals, where occasionally, there’s a crossover between the two in certain games, which only makes things needlessly confusing.
Maybe that’s not exactly what he meant, but it does throw another wrench into the debate. That is, of course, if you take anything Izuka says seriously.
However, it’s implied that Sonic X’s alien concept seems to be the direction the movie is taking, as bits of info that we’ve gotten on the story suggest that Sonic isn’t from this world. The government seems to be hunting him down and he’s on the run with Officer Tom probably helping him along the way.
So, already the Sonic film is working with a plausible context that sort of justifies why Sonic is different from an average hedgehog. And if he’s from another world, I’d argue that again, cartoon design with realistic fur could work. Because now, we don’t just have a better budget to pull off the CG, but we can excuse his look by saying he’s an alien or some being from another dimension.
When you throw in interdimensional travel into the mix, realism just gets tossed out the window here; anything goes.
On the other hand, I think it would’ve been a better idea to establish a continuity where you have these two species coexisting from the start to get over the awkwardness of why the character wouldn’t fit if this was the real world.
The downside with this direction is that by making him a being from another world, you inadvertently put more attention to the fact that he looks different, and he’s supposed to be out of place, when instead, the goal should’ve been that he already belongs with the setting, to begin with.
So, they kinda shot themselves on the foot in that regard, as it doesn’t matter how realistic they try to design him when the story and setting are already going to scrutinize his look by default.
So, to summarize, this idea can work if:
A) We have the tools and budget to pull off the look effectively.
B) We set up the proper context, and the story to justify the appearance, and lifestyle of the characters in a way that doesn’t put any sort of negative attention to it.
But, once again, this is if I even wanted a live-action movie. As I said before, I’d much rather have the full thing animated as we wouldn’t have to jump through so many unnecessary hurdles to make this work.
And even then, there’s more to consider for an animated movie, or, hell a video game movie in general to work. It would have to do something different from your average animated film of the week to stand out. Not just a script that can stay true to the games while telling an entertaining story, but a unique vision to carry it through.
Going back to the live action film, however, the insistence on the filmmakers' part to go with a more biologically correct interpretation of the character is a risky, but unnecessary route. It seems to be coming more of a corporate side of Hollywood worried on realism being the superior alternative, rather than respecting the original source material while embracing the absurdity of it all, to then tell a compelling story.