Are Children's Films OK? Checking in on Sonic the Hedgehog 2

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Are Children's Films OK? Checking in on <i>Sonic the Hedgehog 2</i>

Admittedly, when I told my editor I wanted to write something about Sonic the Hedgehog 2 a few weeks ago, I didn’t really know what that was exactly going to be. In my head, I just thought it would be kind of a funny bit if I went to see the sequel to the first Sonic movie—one of the last films to play theaters before the 2020 onslaught of COVID-19—not having actually seen the original and having little knowledge of Sonic the Hedgehog at all. It is hard not to view the Sonic movies as another teat in our IP-suckling entertainment sphere, but there is something very inherently funny to me about the existence of these two live-action Sonic movies. The fact that the first came out right before the entire world shut down; the fact that the filmmakers initially fucked up the look of Sonic so hard they were bullied into (assumedly) overworking their poor underpaid animators to redesign him; the fact that James Marsden seems stuck in this unending purgatory of starring in buddy comedy films with a CGI animal. It all culminates in a pair of adaptations which only serve to rehash old characters (animated) in a new medium (CG) that, if anything, diminish any merits of the source and still make more money than I ever will in my lifetime.

But I understand that Sonic is immensely popular, and the first film did quite well for itself (becoming North America’s all-time highest-grossing videogame film). The second film is doing well, too, both critically and financially—being on track to beat the record set by its predecessor and leaving Michael Bay’s heart-pounding action extravaganza Ambulance in the blue-tinged dust. Paramount’s president of domestic distribution, Chris Aronson, said that “This film did such a great job in service of the fans while not excluding general audiences.”

An interesting and confident declaration to make. General audiences?? How general are we talking here? All ages? I mean, I’m 27. But ok, let me just say that I’m not here to totally disparage a film that I can acknowledge is not in my age bracket—nor to spend the whole time bemoaning the “state of children’s entertainment.” I did that already last year with regards to Space Jam: A New Legacy, and, upon reflection, perhaps it was a bit histrionic, if not altogether untrue. The fact is that I don’t watch children’s films, really. This is because I’m an adult, and I’m simply not interested in them. I don’t have a child; I don’t know any children or have friends with children. I wouldn’t know if Disney’s films are good or bad now versus when I watched them and loved them as a child, because I don’t really care.

Perhaps, Wolfwalkers was the one of the last children’s films I was truly eager to see, though I feel like that one doesn’t count. I tend to still seek out films similar to it. Animation is often wrongly designated as a “kids only” medium, but there are many animated vehicles that are accessible for kids but challenging and therefore apt for people of all ages. But many are not, and that’s fine. Many are dumb and simplistic; purely dizzying displays of pretty colors. That is more than ok, and I loved my fair share of them when I was a kid. I had elected to check out the Space Jam sequel because I’d spent years holding the original near and dear to my heart and wishing wicked, evil things upon those who spoke ill of it. But I finally needed to grow up and admit to myself that the first movie is nearly complete dogshit, similarly cynical sludge as the second one. The Citizen Kane of my childhood cinephilia canon had sadly been relegated to the rose-colored annals of my memory, along with many others.

I went to see Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in Midtown Manhattan on a Monday afternoon with my friend who, like myself, had also not seen the first Sonic movie. Yet this friend expressed some mild intrigue due to their lifelong devotion to Doctor “Eggman” Robotnik actor Jim Carrey, and that’s part of why I was able to rope them in. They figured that even if the movie was awful (it was), at the very least, Jim Carrey would be charming and funny, as he is known to be. And, as we are both members of AMC’s A-List subscription, the tickets cost us nothing. Seeing the film was no skin off our backs. Why not be a little masochistic, a little silly? I would be lying if I said that this excursion to the theater was purely out of “doing a bit” and not also a little curiosity. The film had already been reported as dragging both Morbius and Ambulance through the dirt, financially. I wanted to have a look at the film that the masses were clamoring to see.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 largely works without any prior knowledge of the first film. It begins with Robotnik on the alien planet he was presumably banished to at the end of Sonic the Hedgehog, and from there you can use simple context clues to understand most of what already transpired. Knuckles the Echidna (voiced bafflingly by Idris Elba) falls into the mix, first teaming up with Robotnik and helping him off the mushroom planet so that, together, they can destroy Sonic and obtain a Master Emerald for whatever reason. Tails the Fox (Colleen O’Shaughnessey) becomes Sonic’s friend, who I think is also in love with him, and helps to defeat them. Robotnik also has a little helper guy who I think is in love with him. There’re some Important Themes halfheartedly implemented for children to absorb, like “being weird is ok” and “the power of loving your family always triumphs.” There’s a dance scene set to Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” a song that does not feel like it has the cultural staying power to function properly in this milieu. Natasha Rothwell is the MVP as a bride scorned by the reveal that her husband-to-be is an undercover agent who used their marriage as a mission to capture Sonic, and she got a handful of genuine laughs out of me. But the movie is also, confoundingly, two hours long, and most of the “jokes” are just references to real-world pop culture. Doctor Robotnik “flosses.” Do kids still do that?

But the most fascinating thing about Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is not that it is dumb, and unimaginative, and nauseating, and annoying. It is, but kids movies have always been stupid. In addition to having a fairly positive overall critical consensus, the people truly love Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and, well, it makes sense. Existing IP, live-action people interacting with popular cartoon characters, montages set to pop songs, simplistic storylines, bad jokes, pop culture references. It’s all there. The most intriguing thing about it is that it is purely indicative of existing trends; that the gears in the money-making machine are as well-oiled as they’ve ever been. The Sonic movies might feel like a new level of hell in the industry’s embrace of familiar, algorithmic trash, but there is little separating this film and something like my (formerly) revered Space Jam.

But one of two things that sets it apart from the films of my own youth is the massive reliance on lazily inserted references. I am not really sure who they’re for when they’re so out-of-date. For example, I doubt today’s young kids know about Channing Tatum in the Step Up movies, nor about Vin Diesel and The Rock in the Fast franchise. Are these pithy shout-outs merely for beleaguered parents, as seen everywhere since the slightly less grating, far more imaginative Shrek, or even Madagascar? This relates to the second point: The metatextual irony of the tone and characters, an endemic disease in pop blockbusters insistent upon using self-awareness to distance itself from its own inanity. The “Well-that-just-happenedification” of blockbuster films has no more superior display than here. If you’re going to be a stupid film, just be a stupid film. We don’t need to be winked at. At least Space Jam had the decency to, at times, lean into its own absurdity.

The philosophical connotation of “the absurd” refers to the human struggle to find meaning in life and our inability to do so with certainty. I realize the absurdity in bringing such a concept up in an article about a Sonic the Hedgehog film sequel at all, but it lightly ties into my own struggle to find some greater meaning from having watched this film and its audience’s ease in managing to find that which I seek. Maybe it’s because, due to our monkey brains, it is exciting to see things we recognize; maybe it’s because it’s just nice to, for two long, long hours, step away from the horrors of our world and step into a world whose biggest threat is Jim Carrey with a big mustache. But at the end of the day, I’m reminded of the conclusion to the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading.

“What did we learn?” J.K. Simmons asks David Rasche. “I dunno, sir,” Rasche replies. “I don’t fucking know either,” Simmons assents. Neither do I.


Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.