Sonic’s Live-Action Design Is Dividing Fans - Here's How We'd Fix It
The new Sonic the Hedgehog design for the upcoming live-action movie has elicited mostly negative reactions - here's how we'd fix it.
2019 looks set to be a big year for the video game movie, or at least a new spin on it. With Detective Pikachu, the vibrant world of Pokémon will get a noir pastiche spin that brings to mind Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But then there’s Sonic the Hedgehog. Sega’s long-time super-fast mascot has been through various iterations since speeding into the world in 1991. As one of the true icons of video games, one with a dedicated fanbase to this day and immeasurable influence on the entire medium, it seems curious that Sonic has never had a full-on big screen adaptation before. There have been various animated television series and a few comic books but little else. That may be connected to the apprehension such a project would create following the now historic disaster that was the live-action Super Mario Bros. movie. However, times have changed, technology has improved, and nostalgia remains the best way to make bank at the box office, so of course, it was Sonic's time.
The upcoming Sonic live-action film, to be released on November 8 by Paramount Pictures, will follow the newly appointed sheriff of Green Hills as he assists Sonic and friends in taking on the evil Dr. Robotnik. Sonic will be voiced by Ben Schwartz, best known as Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Recreation, while Dr. Robotnik will be played by Jim Carrey. It's a strange project even before you get to the design of Sonic himself.
The silhouette of Sonic revealed by the teaser poster already conjured up questionable images of what the hedgehog would look like, but new images only confirmed fans' worst fears. To put it mildly, the live-action Sonic design is bad. It’s a nightmare fuel combination of weird textures and uncanny valley, a futile attempt to capture some sense of realism with this smart-talking blue hedgehog who broke the land speed record. The basic body is recognizably human, but the proportions and build are uneven. He looks like a knock-off version of Sonic the Hedgehog, and it’s made all the more baffling by how easy it should have been to make him look as he does in his most popular iteration.
Live-action Sonic should have been an easy sell for Paramount’s animation team. The original design is already iconic and could have made the jump to CGI for a live-action blend easily. Various pressures no doubt led us here, but there are a few obvious ways to fix the problem.
It makes sense why Paramount would want to add furry textures to Sonic. A flat, almost dolphin-like skin design would play even weirder on film and only add to the unsettling look. However, the uneven nature of the fur on this new Sonic and the paleness of the blue feel a few shades off. It may look better in motion and once the final touches are added, but these changes highlight the difficulty in trying to take something deliberately cartoonish and translate it into a vague sense of realism.
Sonic the Hedgehog obviously won’t go for Ingmar Bergman levels of reality, but it still needs a design that will blend well into a world populated by actual humans and presumably some true on-set locations. So we have a Sonic with fur that’s attempting to look as much like a real animal would look but on a body that is utterly not of this world, and to top it off, it’s not even the proper shade of blue. The last thing this film needs is to lean into realism, and making the textures more cartoonish would greatly improve the basic visuals of this design.
Sonic has always had the strangest eyes in pop culture. Decades of think-pieces and extensively detailed fan-fiction have wondered about this biological quirk. The most famous design of Sonic gives him one giant eye with two pupils that are barely divided by his brow. It’s something that opens up many questions over how such a thing would work in real life, but for that particular iconography of Sonic, it makes sense.
Given Sonic the Hedgehog's eagerness to lean into a more human build, giving Sonic his old eyes may have been a bridge too far. However, the overall uncanny valley nature of the eyes continues to unsettle. Josh Miller, the film's screenwriter, revealed to IGN back when the teaser poster was released, that the changes to the eye design were one of the more controversial choices made:
"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.”
The eyes are part of the weirdly human approach taken to the design that feels ill-fitting for the character and medium alike. The situation is reminiscent of Andy Serkis’s Mowgli and how it used motion-capture to integrate the actors’ faces with the animals they played. The result was a series of unsettling creatures that were too human in appearance for the audience to warm to, and too stylistically detailed to be seen as anything other than a stab at realism. The new Sonic isn’t mo-cap but that eagerness to make him feel part of our world elicits similar unnerving feelings.
He’s too lean, like a human, and the eyes – green and obviously more realistic than the original design – are the core of that. It's hard to quite know what to do here - making them bigger or smaller exacerbates one side of the problem - but the chosen middle-ground is the worst of both worlds.
While the trailer for Pokémon: Detective Pikachu has its detractors, overall the responses have been very encouraging and a lot of that comes down to its basic design. Pikachu may have new added textures but he's still 100% cartoon-style Pikachu, The same goes for the other Pokémon seen in the film; even the ones whose added features veer a tad too close to realism, they are still rooted in the sprites they're supposed to be. It’s a savvy move from both a creative and a marketing perspective. The intended audience knows instantly who these characters are and seeing them integrated into a real-life setting feels natural and fun instead of forced. This is where the Roger Rabbit comparison feels apt. the trailers suggest a lived-in world and the creature designs staying true to their cartoon origins helps that. It gives everyone exactly what they want to see.
Sonic the Hedgehog would do well to learn from that. It’s going for a similar level of detail as the new Pikachu but not in the ways that make sense. It wants the textures but applied to an ill-fitting form that doesn’t look all that much like the character it’s based on. From a purely branding point-of-view, it’s no wonder Sega were reportedly disappointed with these changes. If you want to create a lot of merchandise and strengthen the brand of your decades-old gaming icon, on a basic level, your new version should look like the one people are familiar with.
The best thing Sonic the Hedgehog could do, although it’s pretty unfeasible now given that the film is coming out in eight months, is go back to basic and just let Sonic be Sonic.