This review was first published on March 28.
For a film engendered to milk nostalgia for a recognizable piece of intellectual property, 2020’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” had more personality in its cast and sardonic bite in its writing than most comparable productions adapted from classic cartoons or vintage video games.
The sequel, completed in record time after the pre-pandemic box-office success of the first installment, brings back its core creative team: director Jeff Fowler and writers Pat Casey and Josh Miller (with additional collaborator John Whittington this time around) for a similarly enjoyable cash cow with some welcomed, if far from revolutionary, idiosyncrasy.
Quill-covered hero Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) has found a home in Green Hills, Montana, with his human adoptive parents Tom (James Marsden) and Maddie (Tika Sumpter). At night, however, he sneaks out to be a Batman-like vigilante without much success at helping people. Thematically, the crucible for the blue hedgehog is now to learn that being a useful paladin means knowing when to step in and deploy his skills appropriately.
Meanwhile, Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey, looking closer to the character in the source material with a shaved head and a cartoonish mustache) has escaped the mushroom planet to which he’d been exiled. With the help of Knuckles (voiced by Idris Elba), an intergalactic red echidna searching for Sonic, Carrey’s self-aggrandizing villain is after a mythical, all-powerful emerald hidden on our planet. (Think infinity stones in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)
Adorable fox Tails (voiced by Colleen O’Shaughnessey) has also arrived on Earth to support Sonic in finding and safeguarding the precious gem. In on-the-nose fashion, the filmmakers write Sonic and Tails’ mentor-mentee bond to mirror that of Tom and Sonic in the previous movie. It’s a sentimental and simplistic lesson, but it does enough to justify Tails joining the family.
As it is customary with many of these hybrid live-action and animation efforts to revive old characters, plenty of the pop-culture references and needle drops feel vapid — some won’t age well and others (a “Risky Business” entrance) ring insufferably clichéd. No matter how intelligently sarcastic some of the gags are, and there are many of those, we are often reminded these movies exist to make a quick buck rather than have a long-lasting legacy.
With the added furry characters, there’s less Marsden on screen and more Carrey, which benefits the fun of it all immensely. Carrey’s kooky malevolence once again matches the actor’s maniacal energy and seems tailor-made for his facial expressiveness and devilish line delivery. As Robotnik’s adoring sidekick Agent Stone, Lee Majdoub develops his small but memorable role further.
When no humans are around, and only the animated creatures against shiny backgrounds remain (for example, during a beach scene late in the story), one can better appreciate the work of the character designers and VFX artists to make Sonic, Tails and Knuckles mostly fit in within the live-action or photorealistic settings. Yet, it’s also during these moments that one wonders if a fully animated take on “Sonic” would best serve the material.
Still, a battle sequence involving Robotnik’s giant mecha creation stands out for its visual intricacy. Carrey, with his larger-than-life reactions, is the only tangible element amid CG figures given anthropomorphic qualities (in part via the voice acting behind them). Schwartz’s cool interpretation of the SEGA rodent sounds fittingly effortless, but it’s Elba’s deep tone, speaking about casual earthling pleasures like ice cream with regal seriousness, that provides the comedy that might resonate more with adults.
Elsewhere, the humor straddles the line between the innocuously lowbrow and attempts at much smarter quips from Carrey or a handful of well-executed sight gags (one involving foam art is a winner). The movie also inherits the hatred Maddie’s sister Rachel (a consistently hilarious Natasha Rothwell) feels toward kindhearted simpleton Tom. Though her dislike for her brother-in-law remains unexplained, she gets a richer subplot that takes the narrative to Hawaii and delivers a handful of sharp punchlines.
Awkwardly blatant product placement baked into the plot includes more references to Olive Garden, which were quite prominent in the previous film, as well as to the Four Seasons hotel chain. Their accommodations are mentioned by name on multiple occasions as a place where Tom and Maddie can finally relax. By no means are the writers trying to hide them, but in making them so obvious, they becoming laugh-inducing for their ridiculousness.
As a director, Fowler understands the task at hand and fulfills that proficiently with some mild sentimentality, juvenile silliness and colorful action. But in allowing Carrey to run with his instincts — and thanks in great part to his trio of collaborators putting fingers to keyboard — there are glimpses that aim for something a bit more sophisticated. One could even see Fowler directing straightforward comedy outside of this realm with success.
Proof that one can elevate a mostly disposable franchise investing in the casting and screenplay, “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” doesn’t harbor any illusions of being a beacon of cinema, but within its department as “the harmless option for family viewing during Spring Break,” it offers enough surprises to more pleasant than unbearable. Of course, the conclusion teases an upcoming third chapter, which hopefully doesn’t spoil the formula.
“Sonic the Hedgehog 2” opens in US theaters April 8.