The funny thing about video game movies is that the unlicensed ones seem to understand their source material better than the official tie-ins do. Look at 1982's Tron, or 2012's Wreck-it Ralph (with all due props to Disney, which produced both): the appeal of these two pictures hinges on an invitation to step through the screen and inhabit the weird and wonderful world of video games. The visuals are surreal and spectacular, while the friction between a conventional movie narrative and the bizarre, harsh and arbitrary rule-making of video games furnishes ample gags and tension. (Turns out dissonance can be fun when experienced from the other side of the great ludo-narrative divide.)
It's a good formula, especially if you're trying to make a movie about a retro game that has no story. But the producers of the new Sonic the Hedgehog movie have got it all back to front. Instead of inviting us into Sonic's world, they've brought Sonic into ours - with charmless results.
You get a brief glimpse of what might have been right at the start of the film - after the stars of the Paramount logo have been replaced by tinkling Sonic rings, and before the first of several lines of leaden product-placement dialogue promoting a large restaurant chain. During a hasty set-up, we travel briefly back to Sonic's home world, or dimension or whatever. (The film, reasonably enough, isn't too fussed about the science, and eventually settles on calling Sonic an "alien hedgehog thing".) There is Green Hill Zone in all its checkerboard, loop-de-loop, Sega-blue glory, and there is an infant Sonic zooming through it, revelling in his speed. We get a minute of this before Sonic is told that his brash display of power has attracted the interest of villainous parties and condemned him to a life on the run. A wise owl hands him a bag of golden rings which serve as interdimensional portals, and uses one to conjure a gateway to the sleepy backwoods town of Green Hills, Montana, Earth: this will be Sonic's new home.
(The bag of rings does serve as a kind of MacGuffin in the film, but I regret to inform you that at no point are the rings scattered so Sonic has to race around picking them up.)
Sonic grows into a kind of hyperactive tween-age hermit, living incognito in the woods, spying affectionately on the town's inhabitants and amassing some curiously 90s paraphernalia for his den (boombox, Flash comics, Out Run nightlight). He's a brash, exuberant character, a little full of himself, sure, but more wide-eyed and less smugly edgy than his cooler-than-thou, finger-wagging incarnation in the games and cartoons. Eventually, though, his joie-de-vivre is worn down by loneliness, and he has a pre-adolescent explosion of emotion that manifests as a huge EMP pulse. The government notices and sends in a maverick roboticist called Robotnik: Sonic's moustachioed foe from the games, reinterpreted by Jim Carrey as a clownish yet sinister black-ops spook. The chase is on. Panicking, Sonic stumbles into the bored and implausibly handsome local sheriff, played by James Marsden - and so the fish-out-of-water journey of bonding and self-discovery is on, too.
The film doesn't work - at all - but it's not from a lack of effort or professionalism in its making. Marsden and Ben Schwartz (the immortal Jean-Ralphio from Parks & Recreation), who voices Sonic, are game enough. The plot and characterisation are constructed from the oldest of clichés, but they're clichés for a reason: they're sturdy and reliable. The script, by Pat Casey and Josh Miller, is absolutely riddled with gags, and some of them are pretty good on paper. But for some reason, I wasn't laughing.
Not even at Jim Carrey. This is Carrey's first major film role since 2014, which means it's also the first since he made his burnout and disillusionment with his screen persona painfully plain in the unnerving documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. It's a performance very much in the mode that made him a star in the likes of The Mask and Batman Forever: high-energy slapstick and vocal pyrotechnics with an intense, manic edge that sometimes verges on threatening. He gives Robotnik every one of his megawatts of antic power, but it's not funny. Maybe it's first-time director Jeff Fowler's complete lack of comic timing; maybe it's that Carrey's heart wasn't really in it. Probably it's both. The result is faintly unsettling - especially during an unhinged dance scene that might be the most memorable thing in the movie, if not for the right reasons.
Why does this film feel so effortful? Why is it working so hard for so little return? It's easy to fixate on the things that don't quite work, like Carrey's performance - or like Sonic himself. Notoriously, the look of the character was completely changed in post-production, after his appearance in the first trailer - small eyes, muscled calves, human teeth - was subjected to Cats-level mockery online. Now he looks like himself, but he also looks like he doesn't belong in the frame, like he's been Photoshopped in from a different film entirely.
The real problem with the film lies elsewhere, though. It's that it doesn't really engage with the idea of Sonic at all. The only moments of fan service come right at the end, in pre- and post-credit scenes that suggest Sonic's world and characters might come to life in a sequel, if there is one. And sure, Sonic is fast - but the main set-pieces Fowler constructs around Sonic's super-speed are re-treads of the famous Quicksilver scene from X-Men: Days of Future Past, only played for laughs. That's comic-book super-speed, where time breaks down into a series of frozen moments - not video game super-speed, where the whole world accelerates in an exhilarating blur. It's got nothing to do with Sonic as fans of his games know him. And it's just plain lazy - a failure of imagination.
It's not that the Sonic movie is bad, although it's certainly not good. It's that it was a terrible idea from the start. It's a formulaic cut-and-paste job from a Hollywood so starved of intellectual property that it will try making a movie about any recognisable character it can get its hands on - without asking who he is or why people liked him in the first place.