He’s starred in various comic books and animated series, but decades after his video game debut, Sonic the Hedgehog finally makes his big screen debut this weekend, in a film appropriately titled Sonic the Hedgehog.
It took some work getting there though, with attempts to make a Sonic movie dating back as far as the mid-90s. The final film also got a notable overhaul last year, when the decision was made to change Sonic’s appearance to make him more resemble his video game counterpart after fans were unhappy with how the character looked in the first trailer for the film.
Fandom spoke to director Jeff Fowler and stars James Marsden and Ben Schwartz (who voices Sonic) about putting their CGI hero in the mix with Marsden’s human character, working with Jim Carrey as the villain, Doctor Robotnik, and their thoughts on making those changes.
Working Solo to Create a Pair
Regarding his approach to Sonic as a character, Schwartz noted he always saw the energy in the character in the games, which he’d grown up playing. Beyond that, he explained, “When I read the script, I said, ‘You know what this is? It’s a little kid.’ So I’m playing this like a little kid who’s super-excited, who never got to do all these things in his life, and now gets to do them. So I played with the energy in that… I would definitely drink Green Tea to have a little caffeine, because I don’t drink coffee. I would jump up and down before really exciting scenes. They put dots on my face to put a camera on there, so when I had that I couldn’t move my face too much. But when that was done – when we’d got enough of the visual capture – I’m very expressive when I do voiceover, so I move my hands, I jump. If in the scene I’m karate chopping, I karate chop in real life.”
The emotional core of the Sonic movie is the friendship between Sonic and Marsden’s Tom Wachowski, which develops after Sonic travels from his world to Earth and – after years in hiding – is discovered by Tom. But given the CG nature of his character, Schwartz was recording his role by himself, something he has plenty of experience with now that he’s done voice work for so many animated characters.
On top of that, the beginning of the film finds Sonic entertaining himself by playing different characters, and Schwartz remarked, “I’m very comfortable in that [recording] booth. I love doing animated VO. It’s always been something I’ve been excited about. I get real comfortable in that booth by myself. Aa an actor and a voiceover actor, you get comfortable in that world and once you get that little bit of comfort you get to try stuff out and see what works.”
Of course, for the many scenes where it’s just Tom and Sonic, James Marsden was also performing by himself on set. Said Marsden, of that process, “In those moments, you’re not totally flying without a net. You have your script and you know the intention of the scene and you know what the jokes are in the dialogue and you trust that the other actor is going to get that too. I spent a lot of time with Ben before we started shooting and got a feel for his comic sensibilities and what our chemistry could be. So yeah, it wasn’t too bad. You’re not sitting opposite another actor, having them look you in the eye and playing off what their choice was, but it kind of gives you creative freedom to do whatever you want.”
Marsden previously starred in Hop, which meant this wasn’t his first time acting alongside a digital character. Marsden noted, “You get to tap into your inner kid and use your imagination and jump into the sand box and kind of have an imaginary friend. You trust that the voice actor cast as the voice is going to do their thing and be funny. On Hop, it was Russell Brand who I knew is intelligent and hilarious and [Sonic] is Ben Schwartz, who crushes the role and brings such innocence and curiosity and fund and sarcasm and confidence. When you’re doing it you just have to pretend there’s a real person there. Try not to overcompensate that nothing is there or no one is saying anything back to you and trust that it’s going to be like you’re talking to an overactive kid.”
Sonic the Hedgehog got a lot of attention last year when it was announced that they would be doing a major overhaul of the title character’s design, following negative reaction to his appearance in the trailer.
Said Fowler, of the experience, “We released the first trailer and there was a very clear message sent by the fanbase that they were not feeling like it matched the look of the character that they know and loved. They wanted us to do a little better and so it was message received. We sat down and worked hard on making some adjustments, we’re really excited about where we ended up, and it seems like the fans are being very supportive.”
Fandom asked the Sonic fans for questions for Fowler and @SaadTirmizi asked how difficult the re-design process was. Replied Fowler, “It wasn‘t as complicated as it might have appeared. Only in a sense that there was some question of how much of the movie were we having to redo because of this redesign, but it actually came at a time, even though we were in the early stages of animation blocking, it didn’t have the effect that some people might have thought. We were actually able to course correct fairly quickly and fairly easily. And for the key character of Sonic in the movie, Ben Schwartz’s performance didn’t change, so that was extremely helpful.”
Schwartz ultimately saw the fan outcry for the character design to change as a positive, remarking, “We had no idea if anyone was going to care about this property. You know, it’s a video game that started in 1991, and we had no idea what the reaction was going to be, so the biggest thing for us was people were so passionate. So many people were talking about it that I think it made people open their eyes a little bit and realise ‘Oh, this is a property that a ton of people still care about. They are interested in it.’ So I think the biggest thing was that. And I will say that the way he looks now, I’m so happy with. I think my voice fits really well with this character.”
Another fan, @Big_Low125, asked about how much filmmakers should listen to fans or go with their own instincts when creating art, and Fowler replied, “I think you take it on a case-by-case basis. And I think in the case of Sonic it was absolutely the right thing to do.”
Said Schwartz, “For this specific film, I think it benefitted the character and the movie.”
THE FULL CARREY
“How fun is it to see Jim Carrey be Jim Carrey?” asked Schwartz, regarding the actor’s role as Doctor Robotnik. And it’s clear what he means while watching Sonic, which has the iconic actor going all out in a way that evokes his classic 1990s comedies.
Fowler said that when it came to getting Carrey to sign on, “The idea of playing this egotistical super-genius sounded like a lot of fun to him.”
And once he was in, he was all in, with Fowler stating, “Jim Carrey is a comedic genius. [He has] such an incredible knowledge of movies, such attention to detail. He was involved at every level, from trying on 50 different versions of sunglasses before picking out the one he thought was perfect for the character, all the way to helping with the dialogue to bring his own spin to the character to make it his.”
While Schwartz didn’t get to personally work with Carrey while making Sonic, he made sure to throw in some tributes to the actor while recording his voice work. Explained Schwartz, “I do two Jim Carrey impressions in my performance, and one of them is from the beginning of Dumb and Dumber, when he says, ‘Our pet’s heads are falling off!’ I have a speech where I’ve got a fish on my head, and I say ‘There’s a fish on my head’ where I try to copy that.”
Marsden on the other hand does have a few scenes with Carrey. Asked what it was like to be working with Carrey at his most Jim Carrey, Marsden replied, “To put it really succinctly, I might has well have been sitting there on his coverage, when the camera is on his close up, holding a bag of popcorn. He’s a comedic hero of mine. I grew up watching him on In Living Color and his stand up and Dumb and Dumber. I grew up emulating him and wanting to be the guy. So to share the same frame and to be on the same set as him and have dialogue with him and punch him in the face and receive a punch in the face by Jim Carrey, it’s a bucket list check.”
SONIC PLAYS SONIC
Ben Schwartz doesn’t just voice Sonic – he’s got quite a bit of knowledge about the many Sonic games that begat the character.
Regarding his personal favorites, the actor told us, “I love 1 and 2 because they’re the ones I grew up with. I played Sonic Mania, and I played the second Game Gear game with the hang glider, but the batteries always died before you could finish. But the first Sonic was groundbreaking. Because you go from Mario and the side-scrollers, to the idea that a side-scroller could be that quick. It changes the game because you could play the game walking, or you could play the game running and it’s almost out of control. As a little kid, that’s so exciting. So 1 was ground-breaking for that reason. But 2, the music remains incredible, the graphics got even better, and someone else could pick up a controller. So instead of your friend watching the whole time, they could pick up a controller and play as Tails. So the second one for me is my favorite. Though very difficult when you get to that ship at the end!”
As for what he’s been up to since actually playing Sonic, Schwartz noted, “I just re-bought that Genesis mini. I just re-beat 1 and I re-beat 2. And I got a version of Knuckles that I can play. I will say this, I’m able to get to the last level or so without the save feature! …But then I need the save feature. It was difficult near the end. And I’m a pretty big nerd when it comes to video games. I have a Twitter thread of me beating video games. But the ends of the games are no joke. When you get to that ship, Robotnik’s ship it’s very difficult.”
Sonic the Hedgehog rolls into theaters on February 14th.
Additional Reporting by Chris Tilly