Given its gratifying feistiness, Sonic the Hedgehog’s status as the all-time highest-grossing video game-based movie in America is a depressing indictment of the genre, whose reputation won’t be improved by that blockbuster’s sequel, Sonic the Hedgehog 2. A comparable follow-up that whizzes about delivering action, wisecracks, pop-culture allusions and more than a few groan-worthy declarations about the importance of family and the nature of heroism, it’ll surely charm adolescent fans of the first film. Anyone over the age of twelve, however, had best beware.
Director Jeff Fowler’s sequel (in theaters April 8) certainly works hard to appeal to Gen-Xers who grew up navigating the bright blue speedster through checkerboard lands marked by bouncy springs and 360-degree loops. An instruction manual designed to resemble the ones that came with Sega Genesis games is the most obvious of those nodes, although references to ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Fast and the Furious and other familiar touchstones are also sprinkled throughout this rapid-fire tale. Unfortunately, the majority of those citations will sail over the heads of the film’s target audience, as well as misfire with their adult companions, considering that this saga is a largely juvenile affair that cares more about slam-bang CGI spectacle and cheesy drama than about saying anything interesting or affecting to mature viewers.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is principally concerned with franchise expansion, and to achieve that, it introduces two new characters who are well-known to gamers: Tails (Colleen O’Shaughnessey), a fox sidekick with a two-pronged appendage that allows him to fly like a helicopter , and Knuckles (Idris Elba), a red echidna warrior with giant mitts and a titanic punch to match. The former arrives in Sonic’s (Ben Schwartz) sleepy hometown hamlet of Green Hills, Washington, to warn him of the latter’s arrival, which is motivated by a quest to locate a Master Emerald that grants its owner the ability to make any thought real. The Master Emerald was actually forged out of seven smaller Chaos Emeralds. Yet like so many plot points, that winds up being totally inconsequential. So too is the precise way in which Dr. Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik (Jim Carrey)—banished and imprisoned at the conclusion of the first film on a distant mushroom world that seemed like a sly dig at Super Mario Bros.—uses primitive technology to send out a signal that attracts the attention of Knuckles, who agrees to join forces to find the Master Emerald and, in doing so, kill Sonic.
This is all just a lot of gobbledygook kid stuff designed to pit Sonic and new buddy Tails (who’s also a genius inventor) against Knuckles and Robotnik, who now boasts the bald head and enormous mustache of his 16-bit counterpart. Sonic and Knuckles duke it out in the backyard of Sonic’s home, on the snowy mountains of Siberia, and on a remote tropical island, all locales that appear largely animated even when the live-action Robotnik is around to participate. As before, Sonic is a bright blue blur of schoolyard attitude and playful delinquency, coming across less like Bart Simpson than The Simpsons‘obnoxious corporate executive-concocted troublemaker Poochie. Regardless of Schwartz’s lively and sarcastic voice work, Sonic somehow fails to say or do anything funny or exciting—a significant problem since the script (by Pat Casey, Josh Miller and John Whittington) wants us to empathize with both his desire to be a Batman -ish crime-fighter, and his dawning realization that, per Spiderman tradition, great power comes with great responsibility.
In style and layout, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 look like the modern Alvin and the Chipmunks movies, replete with human characters whose primary function is to dispense life lessons and to gawk, smoke and freak-out in maximum mugging fashion. James Marsden once again assumes the thankless role of small-town cop Tom Wachowski, who explains to Sonic that he has more growing up to do before he can realize his do-gooder dreams, and Tika Sumpter doesn’t fare any better as Tom’s wife Maddie. There’s an entire unnecessary subplot in which Tom and Maddie visit Hawaii to attend the wedding of Maddie’s sister Rachel (Natasha Rothwell) and hunky beau Randall (Shemar Moore), only to have it invariably spoiled by the impromptu arrival of Sonic, and it’s at this point that the proceedings temporarily go off the rails, wholly ignoring Sonic for some wildly cartoonish business involving Rachel having a meltdown over the collapse of her nuptials.
“The only flesh-and-blood participant who emerges from this unscathed mess is Jim Carrey, who continues to relish the opportunity to go full hambone as the malevolent Robotnik.”
The only flesh-and-blood participant who emerges from this unscathed mess is Jim Carrey, who continues to relish the opportunity to go full hambone as the malevolent Robotnik. With the sort of rubbery verve that’s always been his stock and trade, Carrey turns Robotnik into a psycho cousin of Ace Ventura, all flailing limbs, exaggerated expressions, and over-the-top good words. He’s a whirling dervish of silliness, and if we’ve seen this routine countless times before, it remains the most animated aspect of this endeavor, which otherwise races about at high speeds but never seems to be heading anywhere of particular note, this despite everyone constantly talking about the titanic threat the Master Emerald poses to the universe should it fall into the wrong hands.
Buried deep within Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is a message about seeing past historic differences (and the knee-jerk biases they breed) to forge productive future alliances. Yet Fowler’s adventure is all surface—a high-octane combination of digital set pieces and awkward performances that speaks from the heart with a bluntness straight aimed at the pre-teen crowd. Far more than Idris Elba’s functional contribution as the voice of Knuckles, the goofy asides involving Dr. Robotnik’s smitten and sycophantic minion Stone (Lee Majdoub), the occasional appearance of Adam Pally as Green Hills’ deputy Wade, or the egregious product placement (Four Seasons Oahu! Olive Garden!), it’s the combination of aww-shucks platitudes and hyper-speed mayhem that are the real calling cards of this series installment. It’s difficult to imagine that mix drawing in anyone but the youngest (or most immature) of moviegoers. Then again, underestimating the power of nostalgia has never been a good bet—especially when the subject in question can literally run on water.