A throwback in more ways than one, Jeff Fowler's Sonic the Hedgehog obviously hopes that fondness for a video game character birthed in 1991 is sufficient to get audiences into theaters for a CG-plus live-action adventure. To sweeten the nostalgic deal for parents of the kids the film is aimed at, Sonic offers Jim Carrey in a performance almost as full-tilt as those of his mid-'90s heyday. His villainous Dr. Robotnik supplies nearly as much amusement as the prickly star of the show, with this duo's hyperactivity balanced out by James Marsden in his nice-guy wheelhouse. The production may have riled the Internet months ago, with furor over the look of its first trailer sending FX crews back to work on a character redesign; but what's made it to the screen is light-hearted fun unlikely to offend anyone.
Non-gamers shouldn't worry about a barrier to entry here, as the film's scenario takes barely a minute to establish: Our spiky-haired, blue, eponymous hero (voiced by Ben Schwartz) was raised on some far-away planet, where his ability to run at something like light speed attracted the attention of bad guys. His mentor, a wise old owl (an "Obi-Wan who eats mice"), declared that Sonic would always be pursued by those hoping to use his powers. Giving him a bag of magic rings that open teleport gateways to random exotic worlds, the owl sent Sonic to live alone on Earth, telling him to do whatever he could to avoid attracting attention.
He winds up living near the little town of Green Hills, Montana, where he battles loneliness by pretending to be part of a household that doesn't know he exists: Local sheriff Tom Wachowski (Marsden) and his wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter) live a quiet, wholesome life; Sonic peeps in their window at night and pretends he's on the couch watching TV with them. To him, the pair are Donut Lord and Pretzel Lady.
But that's a poor substitute for real friendship. After being forced to play baseball by himself — the dude's so fast, he can pitch the ball, dash over and hit it, then run the bases while simultaneously trying to field the ball — he gets so frustrated he runs at tantrum speed (think 1978's Superman, circling the globe and turning back time); he generates a mysterious crackle of blue energy, which knocks out power all over the Pacific Northwest. Talk about failing to keep a low profile.
Eager to find the cause of this calamity, serious men at the Pentagon decide they must call on a brilliant but unpredictable scientist: Carrey's Dr. Robotnik, convinced he's the world's smartest man, soon takes an unhealthily personal interest in trapping the "blue devil" he suspects caused the blackout. He has a fleet of cool sci-fi trucks and attack drones, a henchman (Lee Majdoub) and a fanciful mustache he's clearly been twirling with evil glee since puberty.
During Robotnik's manhunt, Sonic has to reveal his existence to Tom. He loses his bag of rings just as he's about to escape Earth, and convinces Tom it's his fault — they set out on a road trip to San Francisco, to retrieve the rings from atop the Transamerica Pyramid.
Screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller wait a surprisingly long time to let the film enter what we might call "Sonic Time," in which human activity seems to freeze while our hero zips here and there rearranging a scene. When they do, after Sonic starts a brawl in a roadhouse bar, the gimmick's comic value is hardly diminished by its familiarity. (The film has already tipped its hat to DC's Flash, so it clearly doesn't think it's inventing anything here.)
While Fowler keeps the story moving efficiently, Marsden's easy geniality prevents the simple narrative from feeling rote. Carrey gets a moment or two to cut loose — an evil-genius happy-dance in his lab will likely be mimicked by young viewers on the way out of the theater. But the actor's adult fans may hope he's not as ready to commit to a sequel as closing scenes suggest. Better to cast about looking for the next strange vehicle, like Kidding, than to clown around for a generation of viewers who weren't born when Ace Ventura came out. Leave it to the made-of-pixels hedgehog to keep racing around the same track year after year and pretending it's new.
Production companies: Original Film, Marza Animation Planet, Blur Studio
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Cast: James Marsden, Ben Schwartz, Tika Sumpter, Jim Carrey
Director: Jeff Fowler
Screenwriters: Pat Casey, Josh Miller
Producers: Neil H. Moritz, Toby Ascher, Toru Nakahara, Takeshi Ito
Executive producers: Hajime Satomi, Haruki Satomi, Masanao Maeda, Nan Morales, Tim Miller
Director of photography: Stephen F. Windon
Production designer: Sean Haworth
Costume designer: Debra McGuire
Editors: Debra Neil-Fisher, Stacey Schroeder
Composer: Junkie XL
Casting directors: Nicole Abellera, Jeanne McCarthy, Leslie Woo
PG, 98 minutes