Cast your mind back to February, 2020. Yes, it was just on the cusp of the world changing beyond all recognition, but it also marked a gear shift in the fortunes of video game movies, which have historically not exactly been considered smashes. The Sonic the Hedgehog live-action movie adaptation was released on Valentine’s Day two years ago and it quickly cemented its place in history setting the record for the biggest opening weekend for a video game movie ever in the US and Canada.
The film, based on the Sega franchise, grossed $320 million globally making it the sixth highest-grossing film of the year. It went on to become the highest-grossing video game adaptation of all time in North America. All this after its release was delayed three months following online criticism of the original design of the animated rendering of Sonic seen in the trailer. Cue a redesign, new trailer, and a movie fans were now ready for. But how do we explain its runaway success?
Retain the Spirit but Prioritise Character
“It’s extremely important to make sure that you retain the spirit of the video games and the video game characters because, first and foremost, the fanbase — they’re the ones that are really going to be in your corner if you can do that; if you can bring the characters that they’ve loved from the games to life on the big screen,” says director Jeff Fowler, who’s chatting to Fandom ahead of the release of Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
Fowler attributes the extraordinary success of the first film to a specific strategy.
“I think the trick to making movies based off of video games is to completely forget that you’re making a movie based off a video game, because I think all movies are about character no matter where they come from,” says Fowler. “Whether it’s a comic book, a video game, a novel, or whatever, I think you really have to approach it like, ‘What’s a great story, what’s a great character story?’ If someone is sitting in that theater and knows nothing about the video game, are they still going to have a great time, are they still going to be invested in this character and this story? That was our approach.”
Made by Fans
Sounds simple. Actors Ben Schwartz, who lends his voice-acting skills to the spiny blue anthropomorphic speedster in the film, and James Marsden, who plays Sonic’s friend-cum-adoptive father Tom Wachowski, also cite listening to the fans as a reason for its success. Though we’d venture that there are plenty of films that would lay claim to doing that that haven’t hit the heady heights that Sonic the Hedgehog has. Schwartz credits Fowler, too, as being an enormous part of the film’s success, for bringing out the heart, comedy, and action in the script, written by Pat Casey and Josh Miller.
“Also, these movies are made by fans,” says Schwartz. “Jeff is obsessed with Sonic. [James and I have] played video games our whole lives … so we really are attached to the characters and we want to make people proud. I think the biggest thing is we come [to] it from a personal standpoint. If you watch these movies, there’s relationships; the idea of a Tom and a Sonic and the heart between that. So, as James very brilliantly pointed out, it’s not just like, ‘Okay, this is in the video game, there you go — have that, have this and just have action, action, action’, it’s you being attached to the characters, you finding the characters funny, you rooting for the characters.”
Marsden suggests that they were shaken by the response to the original Sonic design.
“If you think you’re making a film that people are going to love, it’s usually the opposite,” he says. “You just don’t know how audiences are going to respond and the redesign of the character had us all not knowing what was going to happen. And the film came out, people loved it and it made us very happy and very proud to be a part of it. And now we get to take it to the next level.”
Sonic Versus Mario
It may not come as a surprise to learn that Sonic the Hedgehog 2 sets up a second sequel – that Schwartz jokes will take ‘The Next Level’ as its tagline — and there’s also reportedly a Knuckles spin-off series in the works. In the video at the top of the page, Ben, James, and Jeff guess which Sonic characters are Fandom favourites but which other characters from the video games could we see in the future?
“There’s no shortage of opinions online,” says Fowler. “I have definitely noticed that. I love the debate. I love people trying to guess where we’re going next. It is the best problem to have that there are so many characters that fans love. There’s 30 years of the games and really great characters and stories, so it’s exciting to get to have all that to play with.”
There’s also the prospect of a crossover movie with Mario perhaps at some point in the future – just as with the video games. Sure, it would take a bit of rights-wrangling and negotiations but if they’re listening to the fans, and the fans want it, then they could make it happen, right? The only trouble is, at this point in time, they’re yet to crack a big-screen adaptation of Mario. That could change with the upcoming Super Mario Bros. animated movie due out later this year, of course but it makes you wonder whether long-time rival Sonic might be laughing up his sleeve at Nintendo’s diminutive plumber since his own personal movie success.
“I’m sure there’s a little twinkle in his eye about it all,” laughs Fowler, who says he’s excited to see the Mario movie when it’s out. “I certainly love all movies, and want to celebrate all video game movies. They are difficult, but all movies are difficult no matter what it’s based on. So I’m rooting for everyone. But yes, the Sega-Nintendo rivalry has been a thing for a very long time.”
Which Sonic vs Mario adventure would you like to see made into a movie?
Watch Ben Schwartz, James Marsden, and Jeff Fowler guess which Sonic universe characters are Fandom favourites in the video above.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is exclusively in UK cinemas April 1 and hits screens in the US on April 8.