Last spring we saw a trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog, a live-action movie based on the classic video game. In that trailer, Sonic was revealed to be a nightmare-inducing hell beast with HUMAN TEETH. The internet screamed as one: Thanks, we hate it! And Sonic the Hedgehog was delayed three months so that the character design for Sonic could be reworked into something less likely to traumatize children for life. Now, with a new release date in February 2020, Sonic the Hedgehog is back with a new look and a new trailer, and while this movie still looks stupid as sh-t and I still feel terrible that James Marsden is stuck in movies like this, Sonic does look much, much better. He still has teeth, but they’re not so distinctly human. In fact, Sonic’s new look is far more cartoonish than before. They gave him huge baby eyes, which is Animation 101 for evoking empathy for a character, and overall, Sonic’s new features are fuller, rounder, and softer. The effect is that Sonic 2.0 is not a nightmare, is actually kind of cute. Well done, Team Sonic.
Between this, The Lion King, and Cats, I have been thinking all year about realism in animated cinema, and I do think there is a line where “real” becomes too real and we no longer like it. Sonic is a hyper-speed alien critter. There is absolutely zero reason he should look “real”. Cartoonish is the way to go. Like we’re never going to believe Sonic is actually real, so why bother making him LOOK real? This is the heart of the issue. Some things, like singing lions and cats, simply ARE fantastical. Why then chase photorealism? We know it’s fake, just let it be fake. We actually prefer it when it’s fake. “Real” does not equal “serious” or “better” the same way “dark and gritty” does not equal “serious” or “better”. Jim Carrey had reservations about the audience weighing in and having a perceived control over the product. But I think it worked out in this case, because the audience is not dictating the story choices or overall creative direction of the movie. This is akin to a taste test, in which we got a taste of something and went, Oh no this tastes like sh-t. You wouldn’t serve something you knew tastes like sh-t. You would do your best to fix the recipe. All director Jeff Fowler and his animation team did is fix the recipe. And like most recipes, it’s vastly improved by removing the human teeth.