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When the first trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog dropped late last month, the internet collectively imploded in a sea of threads, tweets and memes, all expressing confusion, frustration and horror at the look of the titular speedster. This live-action Sonic was not the video game icon that has been showing fans the meaning of speed since the early '90s; this was something else, and it had human teeth.
In addition to the fact that they are both video game movies, the proximity of the Sonic the Hedgehog trailer and the theatrical release of Detective Pikachu invite obvious comparisons. I am not the first to notice this, but I think it is worth discussing because even a surface-level look at both films reveals the totally different approaches Sonic the Hedgehog and Detective Pikachu are taking to their big screen movies.
Let’s first look at Sonic the Hedgehog, the myriad ways the trailer confounded fans and what that says about the approach the film is taking.
Beyond the baffling trailer song choice and the changing of Sonic’s powers, the most obvious point of discussion was Sonic’s look in the new film. His overall proportions are quite different than his video game counterpart with limbs that are too muscular and a head and torso that are too small. What's more egregious, though, are Sonic’s facial features.
The film design eschews Sonic’s traditional uni-eye look, where one eyeball has two pupils for a more realistic smaller, two-eye aesthetic. The design choice that has gotten the most hate, though, has to be Sonic’s teeth, which look very human, a look that doesn’t comport with the teeth of either his video game inspiration or the teeth of an actual hedgehog.
What’s especially fascinating about the reaction to Sonic's look in the trailer is that it was entirely predictable. When the first poster featuring Sonic’s silhouette was revealed last year, fans were immediately skeptical of the hedgehog’s build. Complaints grew even louder when another poster showed Sonic’s eerily human and muscular legs.
I don’t know if it was a feeling that they knew better or that the complainers were in the minority, but did anyone involved with the film, after seeing the criticism of the posters, really think ‘Wait till they see the final design, they’re gonna love it!’?
Speaking about the decision to change Sonic’s eyes for the movie, executive producer Tim Miller previously said:
I don't think SEGA was entirely happy with the eye decision, but these sorts of things you go, 'It's going to look weird if we don't do this.' But everything is a discussion, and that's kind of the goal, which is to only change what's necessary and stay true to the rest of it. He's not going to feel like a Pixar character would because I don't think that's the right aesthetic to make it feel like part of our world.
Those last words are quite telling, “to make it feel like part of our world.” All of these changes to this iconic video game character for his feature film debut speak to the approach on the part of the filmmakers to make Sonic the Hedgehog “realistic.”
That’s why Sonic has separate eyes and more human features, and why he’s an alien in the film. Because the choice was made to set this film in our world as we know it. Sonic the Hedgehog isn’t the first movie to take this approach when adapting a fantastical property to live-action (animation has more freedom to be strange in this regard). The Smurfs in 2011 and 1987’s Masters of the Universe come to mind as properties that took characters out of their fantasy worlds and plopped them in our Earth.
The thinking behind this strategy (from my perspective anyways) is that it creates a smaller barrier of entry for the audience. Instead of trying to explain to moviegoers that the world of the film is one in which characters like Sonic exist, he is made into an alien and dropped into our world, where only he is different and everything else is familiar.
This approach also necessitates that Sonic look more realistic, or the filmmaker’s idea of realistic for an alien hedgehog. The concern being that if Sonic looks too cartoony or too Pixar-like, as a CGI character, he will stick out like a sore thumb and look, for lack of a better word, fake.
It’s not an inherently bad approach and I have no doubt that everyone involved is working their hardest to make the best movie they can, one that also pleases fans of the character. But this approach of setting the story in our world and altering Sonic’s look, which was guaranteed to result in backlash, to fit into that world, speaks to a fundamental disconnect with the fans of this property and what people want from adaptations of iconic stories and characters.
Now contrast this with Detective Pikachu. Like Sonic the Hedgehog, Detective Pikachu is based on recognizable video game characters that fans have come to know and love over decades. And while I am sure that somewhere there are fans who have taken issue with the look of the Pokémon in the movie, there has been no major outcry because by and large they look pretty much exactly like their video game counterparts.
Pikachu looks like Pikachu; from his lightning bolt tail and his rosy cheeks to his weapons-grade cuteness, he looks like the Generation 1 electric-type rodent Pokémon that became the face of the brand. The same is true for Charizard, Gyarados, Psyduck, Cubone, Bulbasaur, Mewtwo and all the rest. The film embraced the iconic designs of these creatures and rendered them in an extremely faithful fashion.
The only real sort of overture towards realism Detective Pikachu makes is to give the Pokémon some texture to make them feel more tangible and less like flat cartoons. But that tactic does little to nothing to diminish their resemblance to their video game inspirations.
Detective Pikachu was able to do this and give us such great live-action Pokémon because the story didn’t force things to take place in our world. Instead, the film took the approach that in the world of the film, Pokémon exist alongside humans. They aren’t aliens that just landed or genetic mutations or beasts from another dimension, they just are, and that premise required remarkably little in the way of world-building or expository setup.
The filmmakers trust that you know what Pokémon are, know what they look like and can wrap your head around a live-action world where they exist. There is no handholding and no timidity that audiences won’t get it or will check out if the movie goes all in on Pokémon weirdness.
It’s an approach that exudes a tremendous amount of confidence in the audience, trust in the characters and the story and faith in the source material. It either works or it doesn’t. Detective Pikachu bravely asks you to buy in and that gamble seems to have worked.
While opinions may vary, despite not striving for realism in the Pokémon designs, Detective Pikachu does the one thing it had to, according to CinemaBlend’s Mike Reyes: it convinces you that Pokémon and humans can live together in a live-action cinematic world. Even though they look almost exactly like the Pocket Monsters in the video game, it doesn’t take you out of the movie. More quantitative metrics also support the success of Detective Pikachu’s approach.
This isn’t all to say that Detective Pikachu’s approach was unquestionably right and Sonic the Hedgehog’s definitively wrong. Each property is different and adaptation is one of the most precarious forms of filmmaking. Sonic may well end up being a far better movie than Pikachu for all I know, and maybe going all in with a more fantastical world where Sonic exists wouldn’t have worked.
Nevertheless, it is also important to remember that this isn’t a literary adaptation. These aren’t only iconic characters, they have iconic designs, and I think it is telling that the highlight of the Sonic trailer, for me anyways, was at the end where Jim Carrey looks the most like his video game counterpart Dr. Robotnik.
To his credit, in response to the vocal criticism, Sonic the Hedgehog’s director Jeff Fowler said that design changes to Sonic are coming. It's nice to know they're listening and fan sentiment can make a difference. But I can’t help thinking that if this movie just took an approach that was less focused on realism and setting things in our world, and instead embraced the source material and trusted audiences to get it, the Blue Blur would be coming to the big screen surrounded by a spirit of excitement, not one of trepidation.
We'll find out how Sonic the Hedgehog is received by the public when it races into theaters on November 8, but for now you can still enjoy Detective Pikachu on the big screen.