“Sonic the Hedgehog 2” — or “Sonic 2 the Hedgehog” as its title treatment suggests — is perhaps the most accurate video game adaptation ever put to film. Not because it captures the thrill of speeding through exotic locales, or even the curiosity of turning a corner and discovering an open world. Rather, it re-creates the feeling of walking up to a Non Player Character laying in wait, breathing heavily as they anticipate the beginning of a conversation made up of two or three pre-ordained lines. Its character designs accurately mirror those lifeless NPC stares, meant to give off the vague appearance of humanity.
This time around, there isn’t just Sonic the hedgehog (voiced by Ben Schwartz) fulfilling that role, but his buddy Tails the fox (voiced by Colleen O’Shaughnessey) and his adversary Knuckles the Echidna (voiced by Idris Elba), a trio of dead-eyed toys trudging from scene to scene without charm or personality.
There’s a chuckle or two to be found, but it’s really not much better than Jeff Fowler’s first film from February 2020, which just so happened to be my last trip to a movie theater before the world shut down. Had I known, I would have savored it rather than leaving a few minutes before the end, when a minor character began a blatant Olive Garden ad read straight to the camera. Fittingly, watching the sequel felt like a taunt, as if I were being challenged to sit through the entire running time without throwing in the towel. Just when it seems like the film has reached its climax, some 90 minutes in, it keeps going, and going, and going, somehow clocking in at just over 2 hours. Perhaps I deserve another two years indoors for daring to look upon this monstrosity.
Some time has passed since movie number one. Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) is stuck on an alien planet, teasing a stylized survival film with a wacky comedian at its center, but he soon escapes and the promise doesn’t last. Meanwhile, Sonic tries his hand at superhero vigilantism back on Earth, which causes mild friction with his surrogate parents, Tom (James Marsden) and Maddie (Tika Sumpter), though it’s mostly hand-waved with a pep talk about Sonic finding his calling. Spoiler alert: He does by the end of the film, but nothing in between feels connected to this apparent theme.
When Tom and Maddie jet set to a wedding in Hawaii (which the film somehow turns into a depressingly gray destination), trouble converges at their Montana home, thanks to the arrival of a vengeful Robotnik and his new ally Knuckles, who has something of a cultural bone to pick with Sonic. It also happens that Sonic has an alien admirer in the form of Tails, who comes to his rescue. However, the plot soon leaves Robotnik and Knuckles’ personal gripes behind, and pivots towards a mystical emerald, which Sonic and Tails must track down before the villains can misuse its power.
If that sounds far too neat and clean, fret not: There also comes a point where the film switches gears entirely and turns into a bizarre rom-com involving the aforementioned Hawaii wedding. Rather than having the decency to at least follow familiar characters like Tom and Maddie, it instead becomes about the bride and groom, Maddie’s sister Rachel (Natasha Rothwell) from the previous films — remember her? no? oh, well — and her fiancé Randall (Shemar Moore), leading to entire chunks of movie where none of the main characters are on screen and little of consequence happens.
Then again, perhaps this detour is a mercy. There’s not much glue holding the rest of it together. For one thing, the film’s very premise, involving characters with super-speed, seems to disappear from everyone’s memory for most of the running time (something the last movie was guilty of as well). Scene after scene, Sonic simply ceases to be a character whose whole deal is that he has “gotta go fast” — even though numerous situations arise where his speed would come in handy — and he spends most of the movie driving, snowboarding, or being flown around by Tails (who soars by spinning his two tails around, which it admittedly pretty cool). Knuckles, similarly, goes from place to place via Robotnik’s hi-tech transport, even though he seems to be just as fast.
With the “action” half of this “action comedy” largely dulled, the opportunity arises to use all that travel to have the characters interact and crack wise, but the movie rarely follows that instinct. There’s not much any of the actors can do to salvage things as it is. Carrey’s energetic performance in the first film harkened back to his ’90s glory days, but he feels much more physically restrained here; he’s more punny than slapstick, which is so blatant a misuse of his talents that it ought to be punishable by law. Lee Majdoub is delightful in his returning role as a wide-eyed henchman in love with Robotnik, but he’s too far down the ladder in terms of screen time to make a difference.
The biggest issue, however, is the CGI main characters, a trio of rushed creations who barely emote (no doubt a function of how ruthlessly overworked Hollywood animators tend to be). The lack of expressions makes some amount of sense in Knuckles’ case, since the hard-headed warrior has a one-tracked, violent disposition and a seemingly permanent scowl, but Elba sounds positively unenthused in the role, so he doesn’t help matters. Whether Schwartz is actually suited for voice work is something of a mystery, because Sonic rarely has lines that aren’t just pop culture references, but O’Shaughnessey shows up both actors and then some.
As the only performer who carries over from the games, the prolific voice actress runs circles around Elba and Schwartz with her lively and distinctly cartoonish cadence, proving, quite handily, that simply dumping known screen talents into the voice booth doesn’t mean their skills will inherently translate. It’s a lesson Hollywood could stand to learn, but it’s also one of a few dozen that could be extrapolated from “Sonic the Hedgehog 2.”
Other such lessons could be boiled down to “give your central character something to work toward” or “make the action fun and engaging” but these depressingly basic ideas all add up to one much larger suggestion for the powers that be: figure out what your movie is, or who it’s actually for, before the conveyor belt is set in motion. The I.P. itself, and late ’80s and early ’90s hip hop soundtrack, suggest Gen X and elder millennial nostalgia. The fart jokes suggest the film is for teens, while a joke about a woman waxing her genitals is probably aimed at their parents. Robotnik quoting Donald Trump suggests a different focus entirely, and the half-formed allusions to a story of family and friendship suggest a four-quadrant family movie, but no two consecutive scenes, jokes, or story beats seem likely to hold any one group’s attention for long enough.
It’s visual soup where nothing pops or stands out. Almost nothing anyone does or says feels rooted in recognizable character traits, and despite Marsden’s most sincere efforts, he finds himself once again unable to meet Sonic’s eye-line (a production kerfuffle that would be funny, were it not also another reminder of VFX crunch). Then again, who can blame Marsden’s character for not wanting to gaze into a soulless blue abyss?
Paramount Pictures will release “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” in theaters on Friday, April 8.