Rendering Distance is a feature where we look at the influence of video games on other forms of media, whether it’s a straight adaptation like Wild ARMs TV or general inspiration like the Free Guy movie.
When I was a kid, I thought Sonic the Hedgehog was better than Super Mario, which was thanks to Sega’s ingenious marketing working exactly as intended. Since the beginning, Sega has cared only about plastering Sonic everywhere on everything, relying on brand recognition over quality, and that business strategy has ultimately worked, to the point that most Sonic fans nowadays don’t seem to realize that Sonic was originally designed to be a mascot above all else, as if his sole purpose in life was to sell breakfast cereal. Sonic’s carefully, almost cynically constructed character design is one of two major reasons the franchise is still relevant today. He took inspiration from classic cartoon characters like Felix the Cat and his famous attitude streak was mostly a marketing gimmick, perhaps even a red herring for rivals like Bubsy the Bobcat to latch onto and take too far, thus guaranteeing their deaths. That made it easy to change Sonic from a rebellious punk to a free spirit with a heart of gold when he was reinvented on the Dreamcast, and since then his persona has crystallized into one of the most warmhearted things on Earth. Make no mistake, Sonic as a character, a mascot, and an avatar is a major reason why he still lives.
It’s a good thing too because my history with Sonic has been passionately memorizing the entirety of Sonic 3 & Knuckles down to a science, then watching his gaming career repeatedly self-destruct like the Hindenburg. That’s largely because the history of Sega reads like the tale of a company that would rather make no money instead of American money, with Sega of America winning the battle against Sega of Japan to rename Miles to Tails but losing the battle to keep Sonic out of Sonic 3D Blast. Since then, Sonic has had quite a few fantastic 3D games, but none of them have been published by Sega. They’ve all been fan works, like Sonic Utopia, Sonic Robo Blast 2, or Spark the Electric Jester 2. Cooler heads within Sega have been fighting to let the fans do whatever they want like that, because, as is typical for multi-billion dollar corporations, Sega secretly would like nothing more than to shut down most fans and their Sonic Amateur Games Expo for good, to make sure their precious hedgehog is solely under their control regardless of how terrible they are at controlling him.
As far as video games go, Sega has worked hard to turn Sonic into an international embarrassment, but that gets into the second reason why he’s still relevant. He hasn’t tried to cultivate, salvage, or polish his pedigree because he can’t, really; he’s blown his chance at that many times over. Instead, Sonic embraces all his mistakes and embarrassments and revels in them, to the point that he can congratulate Mighty No. 9 for having a launch that’s “better than nothing” and not at all look like a fool or a hypocrite in the process. By this point, his flaws make him look human and relatable. They play into the sassy yet earnest heart of gold he’s developed and further increase his brand power.
After 30 years, Sonic the Hedgehog is the greatest successful failure to exist, drawing equally deserved admiration and admonishment. Once in a while, someone who actually cares about the little blue guy comes along, navigates the waves and crags of Sega’s blathering insanity, and does something respectful with him, and those someones have done a lot to turn Sonic into a television and comic book star who also gets stereotypically awful licensed games made about him. The Sonic Twitter account that single-handedly salvaged the brand was also the work of a fan, one Aaron Webber, and fans are also what saved the Sonic the Hedgehog movie in 2020 from becoming a beautiful disaster that, for a brief moment, brought about world peace as everyone stood united, hand-in-hand, to mock it.
You can thank Michael Bay’s Ninja Turtles for Bad Movie Sonic existing at all. Movie executives took one look at that and decided that ALL live action movies featuring animal characters needed to look like that. It’s kinda funny in retrospect; concerning Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, film critic Lindsay Ellis once said that Michael Bay had changed so much about cinema in ways people hadn’t realized yet. Who would have thought one of those ways would be ruining the design of a character that was deliberately engineered from the start to be timeless? It’s no wonder Bad Movie Sonic broke not just the internet, but the entire planet as Bad Box Art Mega Man bowed down in fealty.
So the executives had to scramble to not only repent for that sin, but find someone to take the fall for it, and that someone ended up being Moving Picture Company’s Vancouver branch, the studio responsible for all the movie’s CGI effects. They were forced to crunch to fix someone else’s mistake, then everyone lost their jobs as thanks. To say that there was a missed opportunity for a ProRevenge story on Reddit here is an understatement.
Unfortunately, this is all consistent with Sonic’s lifelong history. Sega’s goal has always been to spread Sonic across the planet like butter over an increasingly burnt piece of toast, so they don’t care what exactly he appears in and slash developers’ budgets and deadlines practically out of habit and spite. That horrific mismanagement has repeatedly resulted in the fracturing of teams and the cheapening of the brand. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that the Sonic movie has caused this; the infamous Sonic X-Treme for the Saturn was originally supposed to be a movie tie-in, and everything that could go wrong with that game did. Its failed development ended in mass destruction for the sake of office politics.
In the end though, loyal Sonic fan Tyson Hesse came through with a stellar redesign for Sonic to fix a major problem that anyone with two IQ points to rub together should have seen coming hundreds of miles away. The CGI models are still a bit janky though, such as by Sonic’s quills acting droopy instead of flying straight like flags when he’s running at full speed. As I slowly continue to become as insufferable as Dr. Ivo Robotnik himself though, let me quantify my statements by saying that this movie is a surprisingly worthwhile thrill to watch. It has plenty of bad parts, yeah, but the movie at least dumps most of its awfulness into the opening act before moving on to greener hills.
It starts with Sonic narrating as he’s being shot at by Dr. Robotnik. He quickly flashes back to when he was a child and gives everyone a thorough summary of what they’re in for in this movie: high speed action, awkward references to world history and pop culture, a charmingly dorky protagonist, and cringeworthy drama. If you’re a refugee from the main Sonic canon, you’re familiar with lame entries like Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic Forces, plus phenomenally horrible entries like Sonic 06 and Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, and thus can’t take the movie seriously at all when it introduces Longclaw, a giant owl who is Sonic’s foster parent.
With Sonic no longer looking like a terrifying gremlin thanks to Tyson Hesse, Longclaw takes his place as the most awkward character in the movie. She doesn’t fit into Sonic’s world of abstract checkerboard landscapes and big-eyed cartoon animals at all and her implied death one full minute after her introduction is too rushed to leave any impact. It might have worked if adult Sonic had trouble remembering anything about her and we learned about her in dreams instead of a flashback, but instead the nicest thing you can say about Longclaw is that she gets out of the way pretty quick so the real movie can begin. You can say the same about Kid Sonic too, for that matter. Let’s be honest: Kid Sonic is just another marketing gimmick in a franchise centered entirely around marketing. Why else would he and Longclaw appear so briefly and never be relevant again?
Yet the early awkwardness is at least functional when setting up the movie’s main strength. Traditionally, Sonic has never had a backstory, no specific motivations, and definitely no fear, making him more like a force of nature summoned by Gaia herself, but this movie may be the first to fully humanize his character, or at least be the best attempt at it. He learns early on that he’s a danger to other peoples’ lives and the last person he ever trusted told him to never show himself to anyone and never stop running. By the time the movie properly starts, he’s become a cryptid to the human population of Green Hills, Montana, engaging in all kinds of comic mischief to stave off the madness of isolation, complete with a smorgasbord of clever references to the greater franchise’s highs and lows. Inevitably though, his self-imposed exile eats away at his sanity until he’s finally discovered by Tom Wachowski, the sheriff of Green Hills, who is almost as dorky as Sonic and eventually agrees to go on a road trip adventure with him.
What’s also notable about this is that Sega has been trying from the start to have Sonic mingle with humans and this movie may be the first time the franchise has successfully done so. During the first game’s concept phase, Sonic was supposed to have a rather plain human girlfriend named Madonna, and Sega of Japan has always believed the games take place on Planet Earth; it’s only those upstart Americans who have said the games take place on Planet Mobius. The movie that Sonic X-Treme was supposed to be based on was supposed to be about Sonic visiting the seven wonders of the world. Humans have also been the blandest part of the Adventure games, similarly lukewarm in the Sonic OVA, sometimes the worst part of Sonic X, and all this culminated in a princess’s kiss, probably the most ambitiously bad thing the franchise has ever done. Sonic Unleashed was actually an improvement, with the humans having cartoonish proportions like the animals, and the movie keeps the humans cartoonish in personality at least.
The fleshy hairless monkeys that enter Sonic’s life are mostly minor additions, yet distinct and pleasant to share the adventure with, from Tom’s wife Maddie who orders two cakes so she’s ready whether his application is accepted or rejected, to her sister Rachel who is so arbitrary contrarian that she ends up tied to a chair with no one listening to her, to Crazy Carl who was the first to realize that Sonic the Cryptid actually existed, to the long-suffering Agent Stone, to all the extras at the Piston Pit bar that Sonic and Tom trash. But of course, the biggest and brightest of all the fleshy hairless monkeys is Sonic’s nemesis, Dr. Ivo Robotnik himself.
It’s a young, slim Robotnik who hasn’t yet gone fat and bald from insanity, which is saying something because he starts out totally insane in a way only Jim Carrey can sell. Fortunately he doesn’t carry the entire movie. The weight is evenly distributed across himself, Sonic, and Tom, but Robotnik keeps hip-checking them and everyone else to hoard more of the movie for himself, and it is glorious. He pursues Sonic to capture and dissect him, because there’s no one creature in Earth’s animal kingdom like him and all his bursting kinetic energy charges his quills with immense power, making a single one able to provide immeasurable amounts of electricity when processed. He tramples over everyone like the great big bully he’s supposed to be, expertly bouncing off the rest of the cast so even the movie’s cringiest lines (such a reference to being breastfed as a baby) become just more golden opportunities for Robotnik to ham it up. He’s a perfect foil for Sonic, having his own infinite hyperkinetic energy and the same problems with a lack of friends, just for entirely different reasons.
The plot is actually rock-solid with events that progress naturally. Sonic is desperate to make friends with someone, ANYONE, and Tom happens to be the closest available candidate, but Sonic never gets that annoying about it, partly thanks to Tom’s police experience meaning he knows how to maintain boundaries. In fact, the only unrealistic thing about Tom is that most police officers nowadays seem to do their jobs like Barney Fife, rather than Tom Wachowski and Andy Taylor. Once Dr. Robotnik starts pursuing them, they survive due to their downright Muppet-esque dynamic. The closest thing to a plot hole is how the heck a little girl named Jojo had Sonic’s iconic shoes that fit him perfectly and never wear out.
Some critics claim everything in this movie could have been resolved fast if Sonic just ran to San Francisco by himself to find his lost rings, but Sonic tries that early on and gets lost. He even ends up looking like he fled from the dreaded Labyrinth Zone. He clearly doesn’t have enough sense to interpret a map either, given that he’s a spaz with the attention span of a gnat who formed an entire baseball team by himself and wiped out multiple power grids in the process, and he insists that Tom drive him to San Francisco because, ultimately, he doesn’t want to have another mental breakdown due to loneliness. This sort of thing only looks like a plot hole if you’re like Dr. Robotnik and demand that the characters in your fiction be coldly efficient and logical robots, which real, living characters never are.
Similarly, it seems like there’s no way Tom should be able to enter and do anything in San Francisco after being branded a terrorist, but if you blink, you’ll miss his deputy, Wade Whipple, swearing to tell everyone the truth about what’s going on with Tom and Dr. Robotnik, and the United States government never treats Robotnik with respect either, viewing him more as a necessary evil they must release from his cage when it hits not just the fan, but ALL the fans.
Rather, the only legitimate plot problem is the reoccurring contrivances with how Sonic’s powers are defined. Sonic is so named because he can exceed the speed of sound on foot, but the movie acts as if he can exceed the speed of light itself. It treats him as if he’s The Flash and lets him be as fast as the plot requires at any given moment. He doesn’t merely run fast; he can do EVERYTHING fast. He can instantly read a stack of comics like Johnny 5, fire a barrage of darts like Needle Man, play all members of any given sports team at once, and when he’s in serious danger, time automatically slows to a crawl for him. Granted, the total insanity of his powers does make for some neat visual effects, like racing in circles so fast that he becomes a zoetrope so it looks like he’s running in place. We even finally get that “Sonic and the Seven Wonders of the World” movie we were promised ages ago when he starts using his rings to warp all across the planet with Dr. Robotnik in hot pursuit. But the spectacle also stretches things so far to the comedic end of the spectrum that it becomes a lot harder for the movie to sell its drama. Taking more cues from the games instead, like discovering how to Spin Dash to rev up like a turbo engine and using the landscape’s geometry to generate momentum, would have been much better, but Sonic somehow doesn’t even realize that curling into a ball of spikes is an attack until halfway through the movie.
The film also breaks out into pop culture references and product placement like chicken pox. Some of it is mild, some of it is shameless, some of it is modern, and some of it is retro, but it’s all ubiquitous. Sonic’s favorite movie is, of course, Speed, much like his favorite drug, I suspect, and him quoting the film gets him in trouble with a biker gang at one point. References to Star Wars, Zillow, Amazon, ZZ Top, Men in Black, and so many other things are nonstop, individually fleeting yet collectively burdensome, not to mention kinda stupid and gross. Why get a gift card for Olive Garden when it would have been much more thematic to get a gift certificate for Sonic’s favorite chili dog vendor? Yet it’s also very appropriate in a perverse way, reinforcing the core truth about the brand. Sonic has never been about going fast, or playing well, or about the power of friendship. Sonic is and has always been about the politics of marketing.
There are other miscellaneous things to cringe about, such as the kidnapping gag, and the climax itself, where Sonic is thought to be dead but instantly revives after hearing the phrase “he was my friend”, even generating his own lightning storm in the process. Supposedly the original plan was to have him not just come back to life, but transform into the fiery golden Super Sonic to boot. I think I may have preferred him getting kissed by a useless human princess instead. The rest of the ending is heartwarming though and wraps things up nicely, including the teaser about the inevitable sequel.
This movie made me feel every single human emotion in existence. It excited me, it saddened me, it was heartwarming, it was disgusting, it was clever, it was corny, it was intriguing, it was confusing, it made me laugh, it made me cringe, and it’s jam packed with stuff that you don’t notice until you rewatch it multiple times. It’s so fitting that it was one of the best movies of 2020 due to the acute lack of competition. That’s perfectly on-brand for Sonic. The sequel to this movie is sure to be a hoot… except that corporations have been solidly established as selfish and evil by this point in history, and Sonic the Hedgehog represents how they’re going to continue to get their way no matter what. What lives and careers is the sequel going to end up destroying?
Accessibility: A non-factor, given how ubiquitous Sonic is. He’s stumbled so much throughout his career though that this fresh take on the character is one of the best things that’s ever happened to him.
Fidelity: Sonic gets hit, loses all his rings, and spends most of the movie trying to collect them again. It also takes most of the movie before he stops running away and starts not merely smashing robots, but obliterating everything. One of the big advantages of drawing from video game material ought to be having ability limits already defined, but this movie runs entirely on a frankly convoluted interpretation of his powers.
Quality: As convoluted as the film can be, it’s at least consistent with itself and doesn’t really have any plot holes. It’s quite the spectacle, a good feature to repeatedly watch, and you’ll probably find it gets better each time as you slowly become desensitized to its asinine decisions. Becoming a passionate fan of this film means you’ll have a bright future as a corporate drone. Maybe even an egg-shaped drone.