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There’s a glimpse in its opening moments at how crazy the Sonic The Hedgehog movie could have been. The camera pans across a lushly rendered version of the original game series’ iconic Green Hill Zone, complete with those OSHA-defying ramps and loop-the-loops that appear to have naturally grown out of its neon-verdant foliage. It’s the perfect playground for the kind of high-speed madness that the Sonic games embody at their best (and, frankly, worst, though more on that in a second). Unfortunately, a glimpse is all we get; before you know it, Sonic’s surrogate owl mom, Longclaw, has been sent back to Ga’Hoole where she belongs—courtesy of Knuckles’ evil cousins, who get blessedly little screen time—and the Ben Schwartz-voiced speedster is cursed to live out the rest of his life in rural Montana, tragically deprived of the giant springboards and collapsing dirt bridges he was born to traverse.
Now, would a fully Moebius-based Sonic The Hedgehog movie have eventually turned into hideous, unwatchable CGI soup? Almost certainly. And would the need for a host of non-human characters have forced director Jeff Fowler and his team to dip even further into the Sonic universe’s roster of soul-draining also-rans? Indubitably. (Nobody needs to see a Sonic movie version of Charmy Bee or Big The Cat. Nobody.) But given that Sonic The Hedgehog is a movie where a character primarily known for his speed spends most of his time riding around in a truck, even a taste of the sheer out-of-control adrenaline the apex Sonic games trade in would have been welcome, even if it did send the movie careening off the rails.
Because that’s the core, and the paradox, of all “good” Sonic games: They’re platforming games where you can’t see the next platform coming, because “gotta go fast” and “let’s be careful here” are inherently opposed. In a genre built on precision, the most beloved Sonic games are powered more by hope, as you blindly fling yourself off of cliffs at maximum speed, vaguely praying that you’ll hit the next part of whatever line the developers half-expected you to hit. It’s exhilarating when it works and infuriating the rest of the time, which tends to be a skosh more than good game design would seemingly dictate. But then that’s the price you paid signing on for the ultimate video game expression of “speed is good.” Do you think this Sonic would care that the internet thought he looked like a human-toothed homunculus dredged up from a dentist’s darkest hell? Heck no: He’s too busy bouncing off a spike you never saw coming because he didn’t realize that this cliff was one you’re supposed to jump off, instead of just running. It’s a vibe his screen counterpart could use more of.
With no disrespect to James Marsden or Ben Schwartz—the latter of whom exudes almost herculean charm in his efforts to save leaden jokes despite being exiled in the voice-over booth—the only performer embodying the real Sonic energy in the movie is Jim Carrey, who hurls himself at ad-libs and weird facial expressions with the same brio of a Sonic Mania player saying, “Fuck it, I’m just going to hold right until something good happens or I die.” Instead, the majority of the movie has the feeling of those unfortunate mid-2000s Sonic games where Sega tried to capture both blinding speed and clarity, and ended up with big old dollops of slow-moving nothing instead. (Looking at you, every single 3D Sonic game.) A Sonic The Hedgehog movie too afraid to cut loose with speed—to awkwardly slam into five proverbial walls for every one run executed with flawless energy—is one that fails to capture the essence of the character. The Sonic movie should have left audiences lurching out of the aisles in fits of hedgehog-induced motion sickness, horfing up the popcorn-laden vomit of the happily disoriented. Instead, these viewers listlessly rise, stomachs depressingly settled, and untouched by the chaos that is this franchise’s most distinctive stock in trade.