Friday, December 1, 2023

‘Sonic the Hedgehog 2’ Gets Lost in Fan Service

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Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was an inevitably. The first movie, which came out under a cloud of internet controversy about the design of the lovable snarky blue furball, more than exceeded box office projections. It would have been a shock if they hadn’t made a sequel.

Jeff Fowler has returned to direct, and much of the charm and energy from the first Sonic is with him. He’s joined by the returning screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller joined by John Whittington, who strive to keep the film’s zany sense of humor. Yet, in the end, Sonic 2 makes the mistake of dropkicking character for lore building.

sonic the hedgehog
Tails (Colleen O’Shaughnessey) and Sonic (Ben Schwartz)

The filmmakers have taken what was a straightforward movie and have instead turned it into a sprawling lore-obsessed adventure film more concerned with fan service than actual thrills or emotions. Casey, Miller, and Whittington’s script is all over the place to the point it mimics Sonic’s (Ben Schwartz) own personality.

Fowler is unable to figure out how to tie it all together. Whether it’s Robotnik’s (Jim Carrey) return, his new sidekick Knuckles (Idris Elba), or Sonic meeting a yellow hedgehog with two tails that can fly named Tails (Colleen O’Shaughnessey), Sonic 2 never feels as if these are all part of the same movie. Oh, there’s also a subplot involving Tom (James Marsden) and Maddie (Tika Sumpter) going to Hawaii for Maddie’s sister’s, Rachel (Natasha Rothwell), wedding. 

Fowler and his writers do eventually tie all these disparate stories together, but they waste so much time setting it up that, even though it’s the best part of the movie, it suffers from being too little too late. The scenes involving Rachel’s wedding feel shoved into the film for the adults in the audience. The problem is they are the most entertaining part of the movie, if only because it picks up where the last film left off in terms of where these characters are at and builds onto it. 

Rachel has her issues with Tom, understandable considering he stole her car and left her tied up in her own house in the last movie. But Rachel is willing to forgive and forget. Of course, it helps that Rachel’s fiance Randall (Shamar Moore), seems hellbent on making sure everything goes off without a hitch. Tom and Randall get along, but it’s more of a polite facade to help pave over the potential drama.

sonic the hedgehog
Love these two: Tom (James Marsden) and Maddie (Tika Sumpter)

These scenes also allow Marsden and Sumpter to play off each other and remind us why they are the best couple in any video game movie. A list that I am sure exists somewhere on the internet. Sumpter and Marsden have a sweet chemistry, and she compliments his movie-star good looks with her own drop-dead gorgeous and magnetic star quality. Once the action starts to ramp up in Hawaii, we see Maddie and Rachel kick butt; I found myself wishing for a string of action movies starring Sumpter-and romantic comedies starring Rothwell.

The rest of the movie involves Robotnik manipulating Knuckles, the last of the Echidna tribe, the sworn enemy of Sonic’s adopted tribe, the Longclaws, as they search for something called the Master Emerald. It’s an emerald that turns your thoughts into reality. 

Luckily they have a map. Here, the plot mechanics of Sonic 2 feel less like a plot and more like a videogame. Of course, considering these movies are based on video games, it isn’t that much shock. Still, the structure hampers what could have been an enjoyable movie into one that is merely serviceable despite the talent and skill involved.

Strangely, at the beginning of the movie, I was enjoying everything Sonic 2 was doing. I loved how Sonic was struggling with how to use his power and the way that Marsden’s Tom felt uneasy at realizing he’s less Sonic’s friend and more a father figure. This carries over into the Hawaii scenes as he and Maddie struggle with how best to raise the intergalactic speedster.

Cliche as it may be, I couldn’t help but laugh at Sonic’s antics upon being left alone in the house for the first time, reminding us that Sonic is still very much a child despite everything that’s happened. Sonic 2 attempts to showcase Sonic’s growth, mainly through the narrative with the adventure saga playing very much like Sonic realizing its time to grow up-a little-while understanding that Maddie and Tom worrying about him is evidence of their love for him.

sonic the hedgehog
Dr. Robtonik (Jim Carrey) chewing as much scenery as he can before the credits roll

Except the adventure aspects aren’t that interesting. However, I admit to laughing when Sonic and Tails find themselves in Siberia in a rough and tumble bar. Even better is that the two find themselves involved in a heated dance contest with the local dance champion through a series of absurd incidents. In these moments, Sonic 2 shows its potential to be something altogether silly and sweet. But then it’s back to the narrative salt mines to deal with the Master Emerald, the history of the Enchindas and the Longclaws, Sonic’s destiny, blah, blah, blah.

Carrey’s Robotnik stole almost every scene in the last Sonic, but he feels tired and constrained here. The manic energy is there, but nothing is approaching the dance scene from the previous film, a reminder of Carrey’s anarchic comedic brilliance. Instead, like everyone else, he’s forced to stick to the script so they can go through the paces of the exposition-heavy plot. Even his loyal sidekick Stone (Lee Majdoub) feels constrained as Sonic 2 seems unable to figure out what to do with him aside from beleaguering a running gag from the last film.

A shame because there are moments where the writers and Fowler seem just aching to drop everything and embrace the utter silliness inherent in the entire concept. Take the moment involving Commander Walters (Tom Butler). He’s the guy who hired Robotnik to get rid of Sonic in the last film. Walters has formed a new global task force, Guardian Units of Nations (G.U.N.). “Yeah, Gun,” Walters says with a shrug. It’s a clever jab at how governments often use peacekeeping as a backdoor to initiate state violence. But like everything else, it is dropped and on to the next mandatory plot point.

O’Shaughnessy as Tails does a terrific job with what she’s given. What’s more, she’s a stark reminder of the difference between the talent of voice acting and merely getting a celebrity voice. Schwartz is still lovable and wily as Sonic, but at times he falls back onto his other personas, such as when he seems to be channeling Jean Ralphio from” Parks and Recreation,” “The wooooorst.” Elba is excellent as Tails, his thick baritone rich voice a brilliant contrast to the other two characters, but it’s hard to ever really picture Knuckles instead of Elba.

But with O’Shaughnessy, Tails has voice inflections and emotions and a personality born from the voice itself instead of a personality borne from the person hired to be the voice. Her Tails is a complete and rich creation; sadly, the movie doesn’t seem to know what to do with her. Nevertheless, she’s so good that when Tails is knocked unconscious, you can feel her absence from the movie and her revival is a welcome reprieve. It’s not that Schwartz and Elba are phoning it in; they are actors lending their voice, whereas O’Shaughnessey is voice acting.

The VFX is gorgeous and much better integrated into the real world than before. How they rendered the eyes of Sonic, Knuckles, and Tails, in particular, is impressive, allowing these characters to display some semblance of a soul. 

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Knuckles (Idris Elba) proves to be a match for Sonic (Schwartz)

It would be easy to overlook Brandon Trost’s camerawork, which is doing some heavy lifting. I’ve harped on this before, but many special effects happen on days with cloudy overcasts, night, or dark rooms because it makes it easier for the special-effects team to hide the strings. Trost and Fowler have multiple scenes with Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles in broad daylight, and the result is impressive. Trost’s camerawork is polished, and the dynamic in his frame compositions allows the movie to have a kinetic appeal to match the blue hedgehog.

Trost and Fowler make Sonic 2 look better than the first Sonic and try to get away from the typical sludge aesthetic plaguing modern blockbusters. The images may not linger in your imagination, but that is simply because they have gotten lost in the quagmire of fulfilling fan service instead of inspiring it. Still, there are moments, such as when we see the giant robotic Dr. Robotnik, that it becomes clear that they could have come up with something dizzying given free reign.

Sonic 2 is a well-made mediocre movie. But it is also not for me, which made much of my experience sitting through it tiresome and interminable. Still, I admire the way Fowler and his writers are attempting to change the notion of what a hero is, someone who looks out for others. Yet, it doesn’t change how little I was invested in anything that happened onscreen. But if you’re a fan and a younger fan at that, it will most likely be right up your alley. 

Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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  • Jeremiah

    Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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