STACK chats with director Jeff Fowler about bringing Sega’s iconic video game mascot to the big screen for the very first time in Sonic the Hedgehog.
“Sonic is an icon of social distancing,” teases Jeff Fowler, director of the live-action comedy Sonic the Hedgehog. He’s not entirely kidding, and sincere when he says he hopes the film’s home entertainment release brings some comfort to families during lockdown restrictions.
“This little blue hedgehog is a bright spot to take our minds off our troubles. My greatest hope is that for a little under two hours, families can simply enjoy the movie,” he says of the film based on the beloved blue video game character – the world’s speediest hedgehog.
“The whole movie is about social distancing,” he argues. “Sonic has been forced into isolation and leads a very lonely life. We could all learn a lot from him.”
Launched in 1991 by Sega – eager to compete with their rival Nintendo’s Mario – the Sonic video games went on to gross more than US$5 billion by 2014.
Fowler was first introduced to the video game when he was 13, remaining a lifelong fan. “I don’t think I ever grew up. I’m still a teenager at heart. My body might have aged but all those things I enjoyed as a kid, I legitimately still enjoy. Comic books, video games, movies…
“Sonic was a unique opportunity for me to combine my three passions – movies, video games and animation.
“Coming from a visual effects background, I’ve always loved what that can do for storytelling,” says the director who knows a few things about adorable animated creatures, receiving an Oscar nod for his 2004 short animated comedy Gopher Broke, and later working with Spike Jonze on Where the Wild Things Are.
With James Marsden portraying Sonic’s unwitting saviour Tom, aka the Donut Lord, and Jim Carrey as Sonic’s nemesis, Dr. Robotnik, rumours circulated as to who would voice Sonic. Chris Pratt, Tom Holland, Paul Rudd, Andy Samberg and Bill Hader were all early contenders, although with Deadpool director Tim Miller’s attachment as an executive producer, fans debated if Ryan Reynolds might do the honours.
“That would have been very weird given that he went on to voice Pikachu,” laughs the director when we talk in Los Angeles, each from our respective quarantines – Fowler holed up with his wife and 10-month-old son.
Ben Schwartz, he says, was always his top choice for Sonic. “He was destined for this role. Even when we did a three-minute test movie for the studio back in 2017, it was Ben who voiced Sonic,” he says of the actor who has voiced various animated characters including Duck Tales and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but is perhaps best known for his role in TV’s Parks and Recreation.
If the video game has been around for three decades, then it’s taken a long time to bring the Blue Blur to the big screen.
“I think it’s tricky to take on a character like this that’s been around for a really long time and there’s a lot of different ways to approach the story. Story is everything and that is why movies get green-lit, because someone somewhere thought this is a great story to be told at this time, and then a lot of people are going to work really hard on bringing that story to audiences,” says Fowler.
“But story is also deceptively tricky. When it’s done well, it looks so easy whereas in fact, it’s incredibly challenging.”
In casting Carrey as Dr. Robotnik, he knew he would have an artistic ally. “Jim Carrey brings the greatest version of a director-actor collaboration. He was involved in every step of the film, going all the way back to costume design – even down to details like which sunglasses he should wear. He literally tried on 50 different pairs of shades in order to find the ones that were uniquely Robotnik. He’s just awesome and you want your actors to have that kind of investment in the character.”
If Fowler has changed anything about the original Sonic, then he’s added a new emotional dynamic. “It was important to tell a story about friendship and loneliness and to just turn a few knobs on the character to give him a little more complexity.”
Certainly Sonic the Hedgehog paves the way for sequels and Marsden is already committed to a future franchise. “Certainly that could be a possibility,” says Fowler. “Nothing is certain. I’m using the lockdown to work on some ideas and write. Nothing would make me happier than to tell some more stories about our blue friend.”
Sonic the Hedgehog is out on 4K UHD, Blu-Ray and DVD on June 3