The Live-Action Sonic is a Modern Pantomime



Written by: Rory Joscelyne

Posted: May 6, 2019


Mojo Nixon


Screenshot from Sonic the Hedgehog (2019)



It's fair to say that Sonic the Hedgehog, as a series, has had a troubled history. Blasting onto the scene in 1991, the Sonic brand helped Sega dominate the gargantuan Nintendo in Europe and Brazil, as well as give them a strong run for their money in America. This dominance dropped off during a mostly absent generation with the Sega Saturn and saw a brief resurgence on the ill-fated Sega Dreamcast. Following the end of Sega as a hardware manufacturer, Sonic has been incredibly hit-and-miss with titles, struggling to maintain relevance in a 3D environment while the Mario series managed to flawlessly reinvent itself.


Despite this patchy gaming history, Sonic has generally fared better than Mario in terms of merchandising and retains a much more robust fan-presence than Mario. And I would know, having been part of the foundation of the Summer of Sonic event by Sega Europe, including running the then-official event in 2012 and 2013 as co-host. The Summer of Sonic event is the direct reason why Sega of America created Sonic Boom; the fans in the UK proved there was an appetite for it and set the foundations for the US to get their very own event.


Mojo Nixon


The founders of the Summer of Sonic event meeting in 2007


During the golden fan-collaborations of the mid 2000s Sega of Europe set up special events for Sonic fansite creators, including one for the first Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games. This event was held at Sega's London headquarters and due to the cross-over, Mario fansite creators had also been invited to attend the event to compete against the Sonic crowd. Of all of the Mario fans invited, only two showed up (and admittedly, one wiped the floor with us).


With such a feverishly active community, one with fans that have at some point worked for Sega directly to influence the release of titles (such as Nights Into Dreams on the Wii), the subject of a Sonic movie has been broached many times. Indeed looking at the variety of Sonic media, it is clear that there are a million directions a Sonic movie could traverse. Sonic has travelled many televised revisions before, with the slapstick comedy "Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog", the dark cyberpunk "Sonic the Hedgehog" (also known as SatAM), the musical "Sonic Underground", the anime movie (actually a two-parter pilot for an anime TV series that sadly never got picked

up), the "Sonic X" anime which closely resembles some concepts seen in the new film, and more recently the "Sonic Boom" TV series set in a CG universe. Even moving away from televised series you'll find the phenomenal Tex-Avery style "Sonic Mania" animations by Tyson Hesse (which serve as my personal favourite).


While he lacked a cinematic adventure, Sonic has vastly outclassed Mario in the televisual scene (Even his first appearance on the Donkey Kong cartoon in 1983's Starcade is largely forgotten). The Super Mario Bros. movie was critically panned, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World series have left little fan impact and the moustached plumber has been notably absent from TV pretty much since Sonic hit the scene. In fact, for a character with such a strong gaming presence, Mario's only real filmatic claim to fame is for his 1993 movie being classified as the worst video game movie ever made (Something I and many other fans here refute, but I digress).


Considering how many times the Super Mario Bros. movie is critically panned, it surprises me just how many similarities there are between plot points seen in the Sonic movie trailer and this site's cult-classic. Our main protagonist accidentally crosses dimensions and lands in a strange world where he must save the world from military powers-that-be that decide he must be eliminated. I wouldn't be too shocked if Jim Carrey's Robotnik winds up saying "Hedgehog Alert" at some point. Now this may seem a tenuous link, but bear in mind that this movie also seems to suffer from the other core problem critics raise at the Super Mario Bros. movie - that little remains of the original games outside of shallow nudges. Carrey's character appears to be Robotnik in name alone (much like the Goombas of the Mario movie) despite a slightly more faithful look at the end of the trailer, and the GUN military truck that he arrives in is as close to fanservice as this trailer seems to get.


But I can't really blame the filmmakers for this. I'm a film director and a big Sonic fan, so I have ideas of how to make a more faithful and honest cinematic interpretation of the blue blur, but often these writers and directors don't have much prior experience with the series. Bear in mind they're working with a property that has had more tonal reboots in the last twenty five years than the Batman series, trying to place the foundations of a story was always going to be very difficult. It doesn't surprise me that as a family-oriented franchise, they would take tonal notes from the much more recent Sonic games and spin-offs. This is clearly not a film for the long-term fans, and is designed to try and market Sonic's recent edgy tone towards a child-friendly audience. Any fan going to see this film needs to go in as if it were a child-friendly pantomime, the main story is not for you but there are going to be cool nods for the fans hidden within the film that younger audiences won't understand (Pantomime performs this function with a child-friendly story filled with lots of innuendo for the parents enjoyment). The Super Mario Bros. movie delivers a similar experience, with a story unrelated to the games but filled with nods to the games such as BIRDO CABS, the Boom Boom Bar and an entire array of others. Go in with the right mindset and you may find yourself enjoying the film despite it's canonical shortcomings.


The harder thing to justify is the visual design of the movie. Outside of what I'm guessing is Mushroom Hill zone at the end of the trailer, there isn't much of interest in the environmental design. That leaves the interesting features on the characters, most of which are bland. Tom Wachowski (the cop played by James Marsden), Major Bennington (Neal McDonough, who was also in the shameful Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li), some girl seen flying through rings with Wachowski...not much of note. That leaves just two characters - Sonic and Robotnik. And it's pretty clear by now that they look completely different to their characters in the games. In fact Sonic's design was so badly criticised that Paramount and director Jeff Fowler have made statements that the character will be redesigned. I'm not going to defend the design, in fact it's outright awful in every way, and that's not because I want him to look like the video games either. The character isn't cute, it isn't cool, it's just creepy. The eye redesign could have worked, but they went with oversized human eyeballs - and the human teeth has spawned more than it's fair share of memes. Considering it's already stated that he comes from another dimension, there's no reason why a slightly more cartoony appearance wouldn't have worked. Hopefully the redesign will fix this problem.


Robotnik is much more interesting. Some fans loved the redesign, others hated it. Personally I'm not a fan of his black outfit earlier in the trailer, but how he's shown at the end of the trailer suits me fine. Yes he's not a fat guy, yes the outfit is a bit Mad Max, but honestly making Carrey rotund and sticking him in a red, yellow and black leotard probably wouldn't have been the visuals you were looking for. As for how he performs, while I don't believe Sonic was the best vehicle for it, it is so nice to see Carrey back in a comedy role where he's showcasing some of the zaniness that got him his initial fame. I'm hoping he's given scope to improvise, as it's been proven that this is where Carrey tends to create his most side-splitting routines. When he was first announced as Robotnik, I'll admit that I wasn't exactly sold on the idea. However seeing him in the trailer I'm actually quite excited to see where he takes the role.


But why redesign the characters at all? At a guess, I'm going to say it's all about money. Taking Star Trek as an example (especially as these films are also made by Paramount in collaboration with Bad Robot), there are rumoured production issues with Star Trek Discovery and the upcoming Picard series based on one core issue: merchandising. The Star Trek 2009 trilogy were all contractually bound to be set in a new universe to the original Star Trek. In order for Paramount and Bad Robot to earn profits from the toys and merchandise, all the visual designs had to be a set percentage different to established canon. That's why the Enterprise was so heavily rebuilt, that's why the uniforms saw such a major change, that's why Discovery has also changed so much of the canon designs (Although produced by Star Trek licencee CBS, it also has Bad Robot producer Alex Kurtzman in control, and Bad Robot can only make merchandising profits on redesigns). I'm pretty certain that Paramount, currently suffering financial instability, encouraged or demanded strong redesigns to the property in order for them to rake in more profits on the merchandise. I would actually wager that the film itself isn't as important to Paramount executives as the merchandising potential.


As someone working in film currently (My first movie, Human Cargo, releases at the end of May 2019) and a big Sonic fan, I have often considered how I would bring Sonic to the big screen. I would have actually gone the opposite direction to the upcoming movie and made it a classically epic Motion Picture experience. Fully animated, taking tonal notes from Hayao Miyazaki films and classic fantasy animation. A majestic opening of Sonic standing on the Tornado (Tails' airplane) flying through clouds towards the Floating Island, action sequences where the camera would struggle to follow Sonic down ramps, through loops and falling through environments such as Chemical Plant and the Death Egg, and even a three-on-one fight sequence between Sonic, Tails and Knuckles versus a Master-Emerald charged Metal Sonic. Unlike Tyson Hesse's animations, I would include dialogue for the characters, but allow the pacing, action and environments to convey the atmosphere and emotions of the film more than dialogue. I think as an atmospheric Motion Picture instead of just an action movie fans would feel the leap to the big screen has more value than just another throw-away Transformers flick. A variety of colourful locations that tell the story progression as Sonic blasts through ever-changing environments would keep the children hooked while feeling like an experience for adults too.


Mojo Nixon


The scream heard around the world when the Sonic the Hedgehog movie trailer was released


So, do I love or hate the new Sonic movie? Based on the trailer, there are definitely strong concerns. I hate the Sonic design seen in the trailer, but we already have confirmation that it will be changed - though to what we don't know. Jim Carrey appears to be carrying the entire film at this point, but to be fair we saw almost nothing of Marsden's character, and even less of anyone else. And if you were going to have a character carry the film in a comedic fashion you could do far worse than Ace Ventura! Die-hard fans just need to go in remembering this isn't a film for them. Go in with low expectations and keep a close eye out for the small details that will make you smile - just like with the Super Mario Bros. movie. After all, This Ain't No Game!


-- Rory Joscelyne

Human Cargo (2019) IMDb



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