Wow, what a fluke this was.
Back in March of 2020, I wrote two separate blog entries about the unfolding catastrophe of Sonic the Hedgehog in particular, and of Paramount in general. At the time, I said it was rock bottom, a film made with absolutely nowhere to go but up. Of course, I learned my lesson about what “rock bottom” really looked like when The New Mutants came out a few months later. More importantly, Sonic had the grave fortune of coming out in theaters mere days before COVID lockdown swept the world, timing that placed it firmly in the ten highest-grossing films of 2020.
A sequel was sadly inevitable. Then again, it’s not like the first movie was entirely void of merit. Sonic and Robotnik themselves (respectively played by Ben Schwartz and Jim Carrey) were adapted well enough, Sonic looked great after the redesign, and that “Speed Me Up” single was surprisingly good. (Though personally, I much prefer the CG5 remix with NerdOut and FabvL. I’ve been playing that all through the pandemic, it’s a major guilty pleasure.)
Then we got the trailers for the sequel, and the response was overwhelming. Where our first look at the first movie sent all of Paramount into a tailspin, this trailer was goddamn HYPE. We got Sonic fighting Knuckles, and Idris Elba sounded killer as the iconic echidna. We got the Chaos Emeralds in play. We got a giant Robotnik mech. We got Colleen O’Shaughnessey — the voice of Tails through a cartoon series and four games over the past eight years — coming back to voice the character. It’s like all the internet cried out with one voice, “Why the fuck wasn’t THIS the first movie?!”
With the games as with the movies, it looked like the serviceable first entry only existed to bring us a generation-defining sequel. Everything we saw in the ads for this movie sold us on a picture that was going to be bigger and better, more faithful to the source material and rewarding to the fans.
Turns out it was indeed much bigger, and only slightly better. In large part because the ads turned out to be so damned misleading. I’ll try to explain.
For those who need a refresher, the first movie opened with Sonic pursued by a tribe of hostile echidnas. Longclaw (Donna Jay Fulks), the owl serving as Sonic’s caretaker, whisked Sonic away to Earth so he would be safe from the echidnas and Longclaw could tastefully sacrifice herself offscreen. At the time, we were told that the echidnas were after Sonic’s power and we all took that to mean his super-speed. Turns out that wasn’t the whole story.
In the sequel, we’re told of the Chaos Emeralds, six gemstones of incalculable power. A long time ago, the Echidna Tribe fused the Emeralds into the Master Emerald, a jewel of such extraordinary power that a single echidna warrior could use it to slaughter whole armies. The Owl Tribe thought this was a bad idea and stole the Master Emerald, transporting it to some unknown place where nobody could reach it. Ever since, the Owls and Echidnas have been at war over the Master Emerald.
After so many years of war, Knuckles and Longclaw were left as the only ones of their respective tribes still alive. But Longclaw is dead, and there’s no way she would’ve let such important knowledge die with her. It follows that she must have somehow left an unwitting Sonic with some clue of where the Master Emerald is and how to get to it. And what a surprise, she did.
Making matters worse, it turns out that Sonic’s ball game stunt in the first movie did a lot more than black out half the USA. That power surge sent out a kind of signal flare, big enough to send the message “SONIC IS HERE” for all the universe to see.
So now Knuckles knows that Sonic is on Earth, and he’s set on tracking down the hedgehog on his way to recovering the Master Emerald in the name of his ancestors. To that end, he teams up with Dr. Robotnik, bringing him back to Earth with the mutual goal of finding and defeating Sonic. Though of course Robotnik also has eyes on the Master Emerald, with every intention of backstabbing Knuckles just as soon as Ultimate Power is within reach.
Meanwhile, the power surge was also picked up by the industrious Tails, who knows all about the Master Emerald and thinks it’s in everybody’s best interests to keep it hidden. More an engineering prodigy than a fighter, our plucky young fox high-tails it to Earth to warn Sonic of Knuckles’ arrival. Even though he’s not a fighter or an adventurer by nature, Tails quickly realizes that Sonic needs help and agrees to stick around longer than expected.
In summary, we’ve got a MacGuffin hunt, with Sonic and Tails racing against Robotnik and his horde of wind-up toys. That puts Knuckles somewhere in between, grappling with his insufferable pride and obsessive sense of honor until he finally realizes who his real friends and enemies are. It’s a wonderful take on the character, and it helps that Idris Elba is having a blast in the recording booth.
The first movie was all about Sonic — an extraterrestrial hedgehog who just lost his family, fending for himself in a strange and potentially hostile world — opening up long enough to discover his friends and family among the humans. This movie builds on that same theme, opening it up to all three of our animated mammalian characters.
Sonic is still in the process of finding his place in a world of humans, most notably through his misadventures as a wannabe crimefighter. Tails is one-of-a-kind on this planet as well, and it’s implied that he’s a put-upon misfit back on his homeworld to boot. As for Knuckles, he’s the last of his kind and everything he does is out of grief for his fallen loved ones.
It’s interesting to note that in Knuckles’ interactions with Robotnik and company, they shake hands. Inevitably, Knuckles crushes Robotnik’s hand, this results in the villain experiencing terrible pain, we all laugh. By contrast, Sonic and Tails bump fists. It’s a gesture that Knuckles is better suited for, a nicely implicit way of showing where Knuckles really belongs.
Then we have Jim Carrey as Robotnik. Lazy as the comparison is to Carrey’s notorious portrayal of the Riddler in Batman Forever, it’s still a comparison worth making. Everyone talks about how Carrey’s Riddler was campy and overblown and hyperactive and all that, but nobody ever talks about how he was able to rip Batman’s true identity directly out of Bruce Wayne’s head without Bruce even knowing it. He broke into the Batcave and blew up pretty much all of it. He beat up Bruce Wayne in his own home. He had a legitimately dangerous plan with global ramifications, and he came pretty darn close to pulling it off.
This take on Robotnik is in the same class. Though he may be a hyperactive buffoon, Robotnik is nonetheless a legitimate threat. He’s entirely capable of doing what he says he’s going to do. He successfully outsmarts and overpowers our main characters quite a few times. It would plausibly be bad news on a global scale if he ever actually got what he wanted.
(Side note: If you’ll forgive my pulling from another critic’s notes, “MovieBob” Chipman quite aptly described this Sonic/Robotnik conflict as “Spider-Man vs. The Joker”. Couldn’t have put it better myself.)
Moreover, the first movie firmly established Robotnik as a misanthrope who didn’t want any stupid and fallible humans around when his own perfect and obedient machines were nearby. This makes him the perfect antagonist for a film and a franchise so firmly centered on themes of friendship and personal growth with a target demographic of early grade schoolers.
All of this is fantastic. It’s fun, it’s faithful to the source material, it works perfectly with the target audience of ten-year-olds and those who were that age during the Sega Genesis era. This is the stuff we came to see, it’s what we expect a big-budget Sonic movie to be, it’s all greatly satisfying to watch.
It’s all the other stuff in the movie where we start running into problems.
Let’s start with Lee Majdoub, returning in the role of Stone. It seems that he’s spent the past few years running a coffee shop (the “Mean Bean”, ha ha ha), biding time until Robotnik returns. It’s completely implausible that anyone so spineless could run his own business, never mind run it singlehandedly. Also, the character is obsessively devoted to Robotnik to an extent that makes no degree of sense whatsoever.
All that being said, such an egomaniacal showboat as Robotnik wouldn’t be complete without a lickspittle to serve and adore him. If Robotnik didn’t have Stone, he wouldn’t stop until he found some other poor sap to serve as a sounding board for his own voice. Much as I dislike Stone, his inclusion makes sense.
Then we have Tom Butler coming back as Commander Walters, he of that godawful Olive Garden gift card gag from the last movie. The “gift card” gimmick was never funny to begin with, and the character is wretched as he ever was. Yet Walters is important here as the founding commander of Guardian Units of Nations (G.U.N.), an international military task force set up in the wake of the first movie to deal with Sonic and related threats.
Admittedly, G.U.N.’s big play is impractical to the point of absurd… and yet the plan somehow succeeds. G.U.N. is shown to be reasonably competent, at least until they’re faced with something they’ve never seen before and have no chance at defeating. It’s plausible that G.U.N. or something like it would be set up after the events of the first movie, and the organization does have established roots in the source material. (In more recent and crappier games, but still.) Again, their inclusion here makes sense.
And what of Tom “Donut Lord” Wachowski and his wife, Maddie (respectively played once again by James Marsden and Tika Sumpter)? Well, they’ve settled quite nicely into their roles as Sonic’s surrogate parents. Tom in particular serves as Sonic’s conscience, forcing Sonic to settle down long enough to learn from his mistakes and acknowledge the vital themes of the film.
The Wachowskis are a grounding influence, which is something our rowdy and reckless hedgehog badly needs. Moreover, Sonic needs that emotional connection with somebody here on Earth, or his motivation to save the human race doesn’t really track. Once again, their inclusion makes sense.
But that’s where my praise — or tolerance, I should say — has to end. Because while the above-named characters have their place in the story, they all overstay their welcome. They all get too much screentime, they get too many painfully unfunny jokes, and every single one is an unnecessary distraction from the cartoon characters we came here to see. (Yes, I’m counting Jim Carrey as a cartoon character.)
That’s not even getting started on the live-action characters who are totally useless. Seriously, Deputy Sheriff Wade Whipple (Adam Pally) is such a rock-stupid disgrace, even the other characters openly acknowledge what a hopeless dunce he is. So if they know he’s useless to the point of self-destructive, why would anyone in Green Hills keep him around, never mind give him a goddamn badge and a gun?!
Far worse, Tom and Maddie are whisked away to Hawaii for the wedding of Maddie’s sister. That would be a perfectly viable way of getting Tom and Maddie out of the way for most of the movie… if only the film didn’t actually follow Tom and Maddie to the wedding. Thus the two characters get development arcs and action sequences that do not serve the title character or the main plot in any way that wouldn’t have done more good on the cutting room floor.
Most egregious of all, everything in Hawaii is centered around Maddie’s sister (Rachel, played once again by Natasha Rothwell). Who in the nine hells saw the previous movie and didn’t jump to the immediate conclusion that she was the absolute worst character in the whole movie? I seriously want to know who saw this shrill, stupid, annoying, aggressively unfunny and totally useless character and said “Let’s devote a half-hour of the sequel to her! Yes, it’s THIS CHARACTER who should get her own romance arc and her own action sequences! We need to focus half the plot around Rachel the comic relief in goddamn Sonic the Hedgehog 2! Who cares if she actively hates the title character and she doesn’t have anything to do with the source material, she’s a star, I tell ya! A MOTHERFUCKING STAR!!!”
But what really kills me is that the scenes in Hawaii were disproportionately missing from the trailers. We got a glimpse of that ring stunt, but that was it. This movie was sold entirely on the backs of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Robotnik, with no sign whatsoever that Rachel would get so much screen time and so many action scenes. This leads me to assume that the brain trust at Paramount knew damn well that they couldn’t sell a Sonic the Hedgehog movie on Sonic’s surrogate aunt who wants nothing to do with him, yet they made her the backbone of half the plot anyway.
Hey, Paramount? WHAT IN ALL OF THE FUCK?!
Oh, and let’s not forget that torturous scene in which Sonic and Tails blunder into a bar full of hostile cutthroats and defuse the situation with a dance-off. It killed The Addams Family 2 stone dead, and the Big-Lipped Alligator Moment is just as wretchedly painful here. I’m ready to call this cliche the kiss of death for kid’s movies. I’m quite comfortable saying that it’s never worked to make any film better since… what, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, maybe?
Speaking of music, the sequel offers “Stars in the Sky” from Kid Cudi as an answer to last film’s “Speed Me Up”. This one doesn’t exactly have the energy typically associated with Sonic, but it’s a slightly more moody and introspective song that reflects the film’s themes of friendship without completely losing that sense of fun and adventure. It’s certainly more focused and consistent than the previous single, with Kid Cudi keeping the mic instead of passing it between a half-dozen different rappers. I like it. Good song.
Finally, of course I have to at least mention that mid-credits stinger. Kudos to the filmmakers for bringing that particular character into the mix, though I’ll be exceedingly interested to see how the filmmakers square it with the established mythology and timeline. That said, I do find it interesting that there’s no sign of Amy anywhere on the horizon. Pretty sure it’s only a matter of time before Sonic gets a love interest, so let’s hope these filmmakers really know what they’re doing when the time comes.
The bottom line here is that for better and for worse, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is very much like the first movie, there’s just more of it. As with the first movie, everything from the source material is superbly adapted, and now there’s more of it. Everything involving Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Robotnik, the Chaos Emeralds, and all the numerous Easter Eggs is expertly delivered in a way that would make any Sega Genesis kid proud. The problem, as always, is everything in the picture that has nothing to do with the games. In the first movie, all the extraneous crap was merely painful. In the second film, it’s been extended and amplified to the point of torturous.
At every turn, this franchise is consistently undercut by its own premise of “Sonic and friends in the real world”, taking place in a world so insultingly cartoonish and one-dimensional that it doesn’t resemble the real world. There’s at least 30-45 minutes of this two-hour film devoted to agonizing and unfunny trash that’s got fuck-all to do with the cartoon characters we actually paid to see. It’s tragically easy to picture a version that cut all the extraneous shit with only a couple of edits and maybe some minor reshoots.
This is one for home video, folks. You’ll get so much more enjoyment out of this one when you’re able to fast forward through that damnable dance-off and every scene in Hawaii.