In the small, sleepy town of Green Hills, Montana, a superfast extra-terrestrial hedgehog pauses for an uncharacteristically prolonged spell to look longingly through a house window at local sheriff Tom (James Marsden) and veterinarian Maddie (Tika Sumpter) watching television inside.
Though in exile and in hiding, Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) has long been observing this kindly couple, yearning to be a fully integrated member of their family. Tonight’s film is, appropriately enough, Jan de Bont’s Speed, whose lines Sonic has already committed to memory from many previous viewings with – but not really with – his entirely unwitting adoptive parents.
All the major themes of Jeff Fowler’s directorial debut, freely adapted by screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller from the Sega video game franchise, are laid out in this scene. On the one hand, there is the isolation and literal alienation of this CGI-confected protagonist, whose blue skin, body fur and prominent plumes mean that, unlike Kal-el escaped from Krypton, he cannot easily pass for a local.
Sonic resorts to solo games of ping-pong, and also races at dizzying speed as pitcher, hitter, runner and fielder around an otherwise empty baseball diamond, all in vain attempts to stave off his loneliness and to satisfy his desire to be part of a team and a community. This alien’s love for humanity sets him apart from, and at odds with, the film’s villain, Dr Ivo Robotnik (a scene-stealing Jim Carrey), an arrogant, monomaniacal misanthrope who prefers his machines to any human company.
Owing to his self-imposed isolation, Sonic has had to piece together his understanding of human culture vicariously, via speed-reading of discarded comic books (Flash being his inevitable favourite) and regular window-viewing of television. Similarly, Sonic the Hedgehog is itself a knowingly derivative hodgepodge of pop references.
Robotnik’s mechanical vehicles conceal ever smaller vehicles, in an exaggerated parody of the Batmobile from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Kid-at-heart Sonic creates mayhem in a bikers’ watering hole, in a sequence that improbably merges a similar scene from Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure with Quicksilver’s slowed-time chaos from Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Sonic uses tele-portal rings from his Felix-style bag of tricks to leap instantly across global locations – or even planets – in a visual nod to Doug Liman’s Jumper. Meanwhile Tom and Maddie’s marital surname Wachowski serves to acknowledge the clear influence of the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer on this film’s breakneck pacing, wholesome family values, cartoonish physics and its more general blurring of live-action and digital animation.
Accumulating all manner of cultural detritus as it rolls rapidly along its way, Sonic the Hedgehog jumps through one well-established narrative hoop after another, barely ever putting its feet on the ground, no matter how worn the protagonist’s branded trainers may get. It is at once superhero origin story, chase flick and kids’ fun-time adventure, all leavened by savvy dialogue, surreal segues and Carrey’s unhinged performance.
It’s crazy and colourful enough while it lasts, but the fleeting diversions on offer from Sonic’s first big-screen outing pass too quickly to leave much of a footprint in the memory. Concluding scenes (and two codas!) point to coming sequels, perhaps even an unfolding Sega universe. But viewers may well be left wondering if they’ve really gotta catch ’em all.