The movie version of Sonic the Hedgehog may not be very good, but this middling, occasionally amusing kid picture does run the extra mile for ’90s credibility. The first movie about the popular Sega videogame character selects as its biggest live-action co-star Jim Carrey, whose movie career exploded in 1994, right around the first time studios started sniffing around the idea of a Sonic movie. In his first major role in a wide-release movie since 2014’s Dumb and Dumber sequel, Carrey plays Dr. Robotnik, an egomaniacal scientist hired by the U.S. government to track down Sonic, an alien hedgehog who has crash-landed in our world. (Sonic fans will understand that Robotnik is fated to eventually become the more rococo Sonic bad guy Eggman.)
As written, it’s not much of a part. Robotnik preens, seethes, and contorts his face to spit out condescending sarcasm with all the psychology of a Saturday morning cartoon baddie. Then again, most vintage Jim Carrey comedy roles probably aren’t much on paper. While Dumb and Dumber (the third of his three major triumphs in 1994) is a successful double act with Jeff Daniels, most of Carrey’s early comedies rely on Carrey making a solo spectacle of himself, with outsize gestures, goony facial expressions, and carnival-barker delivery. For Carrey’s co-stars, the best strategy is to keep out of his way; Tommy Lee Jones tried to keep up with him in Batman Forever and looked labored and unfunny trying. (According to Carrey, Jones told him he could not “sanction your buffoonery.”) But in Sonic the Hedgehog, Carrey’s co-star is an infinitely elastic blog of computer-generated imagery, which means that he’s not going up against another stiff-lipped human. He’s face to face with his functional replacement.
It’s hard to say whether Carrey’s one-man-show style of comedy went out of fashion on its own, or if Carrey helped hasten its demise. Whether tastes changed or Carrey just chose to take a break, he wasn’t much of a presence in 2010s cinema, mixing a handful of mainstream starring roles with bit parts, cameos, and a melancholic Michel Gondry TV series. And as he stepped back, another source of kid-friendly comedy took over: big-budget computer animation. This transition had been in the works since Carrey’s heyday; Batman Forever was the top-grossing movie of 1995 until it was overtaken by Toy Story, the first computer-animated blockbuster. Now there are five major computer-animation studios producing around seven or eight of them every year, and big, broad live-action comedies have grown scarcer.
The heroes in animated movies like Despicable Me (and ones with major animated characters, like Sonic), perform many of the same functions as Jim Carrey characters, and use the same techniques: funny voices, catchphrases, incongruous or antisocial behavior, all stuff that kids can easily read as “funny.” The result is often a cloud of yammering noise, right on the line between irritating and lovable. When Sonic zips around a baseball diamond, using his superspeed to play every position in the game while offering his own commentary, he comes across like a poor man’s Bugs Bunny—or a poor movie’s Jim Carrey.
When a visibly older Carrey arrives to relentlessly pursue Sonic across an empty highway, a small town, and the streets of San Francisco, it plays like a former star returning to vanquish his younger rival. It’s hard to tell what contemporary kids will make of Carrey’s shtick, which the movie screeches to a halt to indulge. Yet I found myself eagerly anticipating his scenes, and shifting restlessly in my seat when I was forced to spend more time with Sonic, the cute special-effects marvel, who is affably voiced by Ben Schwartz.
Carrey can be brilliantly funny, though a lot of his broad comedies are not. Some of his best-known work is more physical feat than well-executed farce. When he beats the hell out of himself in Liar Liar or throws himself out of a moving car in Me, Myself, and Irene, it’s the comedy equivalent of a more serious actor doing an uncanny imitation: a spectacular stunt, often unmoored from the rickety movie giving him the excuse. Even without such gymnastics, his Sonic performance makes a meal of every sneering put-down from Dr. Robotnik, who fancies himself intellectually superior to everyone on Earth. Carrey stretches his goofy lines so far around the bend that they become distorted and awkward, and that’s almost funnier. The more he derails the movie’s standard family-film proceedings, the better he is.
In other words, Carrey out-cartoons the cartoons. Watching Carrey in a mainstream kiddie comedy again feels a little like comparing the mostly hand-drawn animation of The Lion King to the soulless photorealism of its recent remake: It’s less technologically advanced, yet more impressive. How the Grinch Stole Christmas may be a garish shtick machine, but at least Carrey brings a nutso personality and physicality to match. In the 2018 animated remake, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Grinch has the voice of a grumpy sitcom neighbor.
Carrey’s virtual co-star Sonic marshaled a ton of special-effects resources, and underwent a substantial, expensive character redesign when fans balked at his appearance in an early trailer. The version the filmmakers settled on is, indeed, more appealing (bigger eyes, less prominently humanlike teeth), but that doesn’t make him especially interesting. He’s a focus-grouped and fan-approved avatar of comic anarchy. Carrey’s performance isn’t any less familiar, but his humanity gives it an unruly energy. He is his own special effect, if a retro one, and watching him is as satisfying in its own way as catching a glimpse of a matte painting or miniature set. Early in his career, Carrey’s antics were critical anathema; now they’ll probably nudge a few critics of this Sega adaptation toward positivity. His appearance generates a strange gratitude toward this bland, belated IP capitalization, albeit one that’s at odds with the movie’s storytelling goals (such as they are). As Sonic sped toward the usual climactic confrontation with his hubris-drunk live-action nemesis, part of me hoped that Jim Carrey would win.