Talking Point: Not Appealing To Gamers First Is A Dangerous Strategy For The Sonic Movie



    “Every hero has a Genesis,” the trailer tells us. Unfortunately, we’re not convinced anybody at Paramount has ever even seen one. Whether you’re a fan of the blue hedgehog’s original Sega Genesis/Mega Drive oeuvre, partial to his brave strides into the third dimension on Dreamcast or have been keeping up with his latest exploits across all platforms in the modern era, anybody who holds him in high esteem likely watched today’s reveal for the upcoming live-action Sonic the Hedgehog film through their fingers in absolute horror. Regardless of which era you’re a fan of, the version coming to cinema screens in November doesn’t appear to please anyone who’s ever enjoyed a platformer starring Sega’s mascot.

    Perhaps his timing is simply bad. The imminent release of Detective Pikachu and the deluge of media accompanying it leads to inevitable comparisons between the two video gaming franchise movies, but where the Pokémon film and its design has met with much praise after initial shock at the Pokémon’s ‘fur’, it’s tough to find anyone who thinks that Sonic looks like anything but a nightmare.

    The trailer, reproduced above for your ‘pleasure’, puts the blue speed demon against a backdrop of resolutely bland environments, with most of its two minutes and forty-seven second runtime accompanied by Coolio’s classic ‘Gangster’s Paradise’. Why? Well, the why of it all seems to get a little lost. Are they trying to evoke some sort of mid-90s atmosphere, perhaps? Does it tie in lyrically to the movie or trailer in any way at all like The Turtles’ ‘Happy Together’ does in the Detective Pikachu trailer? Unless there’s some big plot point they’re keeping under wraps, it doesn’t appear so. It seems like somebody misheard a request for a ‘cool’ song and Coolio thusly found a cheque in his mailbox.

    The soundtrack is the least of our worries as Sonic enthusiasts, though. 2D traditionalists for whom Sonic Mania is the first ‘true’ Sonic game since 1994’s Sonic & Knuckles will likely take one look at this ill-proportioned, half-scrawled napkin-sketch of a character and run a mile, but even fans of his lankier modern look must feel horrified at what the movie’s designers have produced. Personally, we’re partial to the blue hedgehog’s original guise – the plucky little guy with ‘tude and a rotund belly that (silently) raced through twisting glades and mystic caves to battle Robotnik – but despite losing a few pounds around the midriff, movie Sonic shares little in common with the hedgehog seen in the modern games, either. His response of “Er…, meow?” when James Marsden’s cop bursts in on him seems like an admission that somebody cocked up the character design.


    Let’s (for a moment) give them the benefit of the doubt! Sonic’s never looked much like a hedgehog, and his design was famously modelled on Felix the Cat – perhaps that “meow” is actually a real ‘deep cut’ for fans to pick up on. No? Anyone?

    Okay. But let’s not forget that the reaction to the ‘furry’ Pokémon in the Detective Pikachu trailer wasn’t universally positive in the beginning. As we’ve seen more and more of the ‘mon revealed over the last few months, it’s become clear that their design blends very well with the real-world setting of the film. There’s a coherency there between all of the Pocket Monsters and, perhaps more significantly, it hones very closely to the source material. Say what you like about the fur, each and every Pokémon we’ve seen stays meticulously true to its original silhouette and design in the video games. Change the colour of any of them and they’d still be recognisably Jigglypuff or Bulbasaur or Charizard.

    Conversely, if you made this version of Sonic red, for example, would you even be able to recognise the character? Would the human body shape of the silhouette make you think of video gaming legend Sonic the Hedgehog if it hadn’t been seared into your nightmares since the initial teaser reveal? Movie Sonic feels like Paramount thought they could save money by putting a CG head on a guy in a suit, or maybe make money on Halloween costumes. He’s what you’d get if you gave crayons to an alien and told them to draw a blue dude with spines and red shoes. Tell the same alien to draw a mouse with big ears, red shorts and yellow shoes and they’d produce something similarly off-model. There’s no evidence of respect for the shape, form or anything at all related to the video game character’s classic design. ‘Blue hedgehog thing, red shoes, fast – go!’

    Look! Green Hills! Because that's a Sonic thing, right?
    Look! Green Hills! Because that’s a Sonic thing, right?

    The thing is, though, we wonder how somebody who had no connection to the games – with no deep history or love for the character – would feel after watching the trailer. How would they compare it to, say, the Detective Pikachu trailer? After all, there are more similarities than we might care to admit. Both of them feature ‘photorealistic’ animals in a real-world setting; obnoxious furry things which wisecrack. With Pikachu voiced by Ryan ‘Deadpool’ Reynolds, how is this motormouth any different?

    Both trailers follow the same tired formula that every action-comedy follows (Music-Music-Stop-Gag-Music-Slow Motion Bit-Music) and both feature jokes which come off as average, at best. Jim Carrey’s continual interruption of the army man brought to mind Doctor Evil silencing his son in Austin Powers and feels pretty weak, but the same could be said of the ‘shove it’ Mr Mime gag in Detective Pikachu. We thought you were supposed to put your best jokes in the trailer?! Let’s hope that both films are less conventional than these snippets suggest.

    Early whispers regarding the Pokémon film are very positive and we’re confident that it’ll be entertaining at the very least. Who knows – perhaps Sonic the Motion Picture will be an absolute masterpiece of the cinematic medium. As gamers, we may look at the trailer and weep, but how it will go down with the non-gaming public is difficult to judge. While Pokémon is undoubtedly the bigger property in business terms, our gran couldn’t point to Pikachu in a lineup, but show her a picture of a blue hedgehog and she’ll know he’s called Sonic and she’ll know that he runs.

    Squint and you can almost imagine that it doesn't look rubbish.
    Squint and you can almost imagine that it doesn’t look rubbish.

    We doubt that Paramount is targeting our gran or ‘the grey pound’ in general, but the point is that Sonic carries a brand-recognition factor which arguably matches Pokémon, even in a post-Pokémon Go world. Whether ‘broad recognition’ translates to ‘broad appeal’ is another question, but if you showed non-gamers the two trailers side-by-side, we’re not sure they’d notice a vast gulf in quality. Will they go through existential angst trying to divine the reason Gangster’s Paradise is in the trailer? Hell no – it’s just a great tune! It will largely depend what other movies are releasing alongside this one, but if enough non-gaming cinemagoers recognise that blue monstrosity as Sonic and take a punt, perhaps it won’t be the colossal bomb we’re all predicting on the evidence of the first trailer.

    It’s a gamble, though. Detective Pikachu feels like it’s pleasing gamers first and then hoping to attract a larger audience on the strength of Pokémon Go’s success and Ryan Reynolds’ box office charm. Whether or not that’s true, Warner Bros.’ approach feels less cynical – it seems like the filmmakers genuinely care about the source material and the studio has let them get on with making the thing.

    Paramount seems to have taken a different route with Sonic, ejecting or completely reworking many things the gaming audience hold dear in the hopes of a wider appeal from the off. It feels like it’s been focus-tested to death, dissected by executives who’ve never heard of Yuji Naka or Hirokazu Yasuhara or Masato Nakamura. We’ve seen the results of this before in numerous disappointing video game movie adaptations – need we mention the fundamental missteps of the Super Mario Bros. movie or Street Fighter (the 1994 one or the 2009 version – take your pick)? There are countless examples of missing the point. By alienating actual gamers this film runs the risk of falling into the chasm between an audience that actively avoids it and the masses that see nothing to indicate what the fuss is about and couldn’t care less. We’ll see in November if that gamble pays off and if this attracts non-gamers, but we’re not holding our breath. A glimpse of the ‘proper’ Robotnik and some giant mushrooms in the dying seconds was, for us, possibly the best thing the trailer had to offer.


    Everything else, though? My word – what were they thinking?!

    What do you think? Have we missed any redeeming features? Or did you – and this is perfectly fine – like the trailer? Let us know with a comment.

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