Taking video game franchises to the big screen and into theaters, you would think, would be an easy win for Hollywood studios. The look and feel of the characters are already there, a story and character arc is already in place and you have a fanbase invested from the get-go. But, if you take a cursory glance at the list of movies that began their lives as computer games, it’s not so much a bumpy road as a barren track riddled with potholes. So why are the new Sonic The Hedgehog (opens in new tab) movies turning out so good?
“Heart”, director Jeff Fowler says, when he talks with TechRadar at the film’s junket.
“Heart. Both movies have a lot of heart. The first movie was very grounded and we were able to get people to emotionally connect with Sonic. He was an outsider looking for a friend, looking for family. We had a lot of fun with action and there’s great humour, but what makes the movie resonate is the character.”
It’s a point previous video game adaptations have variously failed to note – often looking the part, but leaving an emotional void audiences have struggled to fill. The first video game adaptation was 1993’s ill-fated Super Mario Bros, and it took various studios a whopping 33 attempts before they managed to make a film that scored more than 50% on Rotten Tomatoes (opens in new tab). That movie, Alicia Vikander’s Tomb Raider reboot, still only managed 52%. (opens in new tab)
That’s not to say video game adaptations haven’t been lucrative – they have. There’s a reason there are seven live-action takes on Resident Evil (opens in new tab), but many of the world’s most popular games, when turned into films, franchises like Far Cry, Warcraft (opens in new tab), Assassin’s Creed (opens in new tab)and Need For Speed (opens in new tab), have sunk without trace.
In 2020, Sonic The Hedgehog bucked that trend. With box office takings of almost $320 million and a more than respectable 63% on Rotten Tomatoes, the film proved to be a big hit.
Based on SEGA's hugely successful gaming franchise, it followed Sonic, a blue hedgehog who can run supersonic speeds, as he is sent to Earth to try and hide from those on his home planet who look to steal his powers. Once there, he teams up with local town sheriff Tom Wachowski to stop the sinister mad scientist Dr. Robotnik from taking over the world.
The film’s success was a surprise, not least because the character’s journey to theaters had been long and riddled with problems. The first attempt to tackle the blue-furred speedster on film goes all the way back to 1993, but did not leave the planning stage until Sony Pictures took the rights in 2013. Sony worked on the movie for four years, but ultimately baulked at the prospect and the rights went to Paramount, who finally got the project going in 2017.
Things started off promisingly enough. Ben Schwartz, best known for his screwball turn in beloved comedy Parks and Recreation, signed up to voice Sonic, with Jim Carrey, one of the best physical comedic actors of the last 30 years, onboard to play villain Dr. Robotnik. With a cast rounded out by James Marsden, Ride Along's Tika Sumpter and Insecure star Natasha Rothwell, the film was billed as a good time family adventure, and fans of the game were excited. Right up until they saw the first trailer.
In an effort to make Sonic look more human, the character was given smaller eyes, a skinnier stature, and, very weirdly, human-like teeth. The reaction to the trailer was negative. Extremely negative.
But, to give Fowler and Paramount Pictures credit, they listened. Executives coughed up an extra five million dollars, the film was delayed by six months, and artist Tyson Hesse, who worked on previous Sonic the Hedgehog media, was brought on to lead the redesign.
The final result was a fun-filled family adventure that captured the best of the games, both nostalgic and futuristic, with great chemistry between the live-action cast and Schwartz’s Sonic. The response and the takings were so good, that a sequel was commissioned, one that hits theaters this weekend.
Speaking to TechRadar, the films stars agree with returning director Fowler on what made the film stand out.
“Jeff and the writers made sure there’s a whole bunch of heart in there, you really care about the characters, as well as all those video game references,” enthuses Schwartz
“It’s the heart amid the comedy and the action, you want Sonic to succeed, because you care about him. It’s also a movie for the fans, we listen to the fans, we’ve always listened to the fans and we want them to be invested.”
Live action co-star James Marsden stresses the importance of making the movie live beyond its visuals, “You have to care, there have to be real stakes, you can’t just rely on big action set pieces and flashy CGI. It’s a journey of self-discovery, my character is figuring out how to be a parent, that gives everyone an in.”
Sumpter also talks up the movie’s heart, but adds: “It’s the nostalgia of these characters, people see themselves in them. Making these movies feel grounded is a big thing”. Rothwell, meanwhile, thinks it’s all about Fowler’s connection to the audience, “That first movie is basically a love letter from Jeff Fowler to fans. It’s for them. Audiences feel so included. This movie is a love letter to Sonic.”
The film’s sequel finds Carrey’s Robotnik back once again and this time searching for a Master Emerald, which he believes will give him the power to conquer the world and exact revenge against Sonic. Joining him in battle is Knuckles, the all-powerful warrior. A much-beloved part of the original games, alongside Sonic and Tails, Fowler persuaded Idris Elba to voice the character and is absolutely delighted by his presence.
Asked about working with Elba, Fowler said: “Very early on. It was such an important piece of the puzzle. You have to be very careful because the voices define the character, they’re all you have. I can’t believe we were able to get him. He was so interested and so keen to get Knuckles right. He was desperate to give the fans the Knuckles that they wanted to see. Knuckles has got super-strength, he’s a trained warrior. Sonic is no match for that, he’s no match for us. A character like that enables you to do so much, he’s able to challenge Sonic and force him to grow.”
Whereas the first movie didn’t move much from Green Hills, the town that is now Sonic’s adopted home, the sequel opens up the world up, with Sonic and Tails heading to Hawaii, a vast tropical island and even to Russia, a sequence that was conceived an awfully long time before the war in Ukraine.
Asked about that given the current world climate, Schwartz gave a straight bat, saying “We filmed this a very long time ago”, while Fowler confirmed that what is supposed to be Siberia, was actually all digital. “It’s an entirely virtual set, with some stage work. We didn’t need to go out into the bitter cold to recreate that.”
Rothwell was particularly grateful for the movie’s expansion, “I spent 90% of the first movie tied to a chair, I was delighted to be able to actually move around!”
The action most definitely steps up in the sequel, which is something Fowler was desperate to do, adding: “We owe all the hardcore fans as much action as we can give them”, while Schwartz puts the film in some big company, “This is Indiana Jones and a Marvel movie rolled into one.”
Paramount already has big plans for Sonic, with a third film already in development and a spin-off series based on Elba’s Knuckles planned for streaming service Paramount Plus. (opens in new tab) Fowler won’t get into specifics, “We’re just focused on getting people into theaters”, but he’s definitely planning to be at the helm for whatever is next.
He added: “I love these characters, I love the cast and I love making these films. But, if there’s an appetite, there are so many great characters to choose from, it really is an embarrassment of riches. I’m excited to do more.”
Marsden feels the same, with the former adding: “We want to do as many of these as possible. I’m not Cyclops anymore [A reference to his X-Men character], people come up to me and call me Donut Lord. Let’s make 10 of these.” Schwartz agrees, “We’ll make them until the fans get sick of them.”
Given Paramount’s plans and another excellent action-adventure in the bag with Sonic The Hedgehog 2, it’ll be a while before that happens.
Sonic The Hedgehog 2 is released into theaters in the US on April 8. It is out now in the UK.
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