There isn’t anything so bad about the trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog, in a vacuum. Why, then, was there such a visceral reaction to it?
The trailer does its job, which is to situate a cartoon character we’re all very familiar with in a new, almost-real world. A blur of saturated color streaks by a highway patrol car. James Marsden, forever sickeningly handsome and confused, taps his radar gun to make sure it’s working properly. 760 miles per hour? A single, neon-blue hair twisting in an electrical current? A dank underground lair filled with cassette tapes and absolutely cooked running shoes? The signature midi poing! sound? Sonic is coming to a one-lane highway near you. And he has … erm, thighs. Hmm.
Basic logic dictates that anyone/thing whose top land speed is higher than the typical cruising airspeed of a plane would probably also have some pretty defined thighs. It tracks. But logic and fan reactions, broadly, are oil and water. The Twitter commentariat, myself included, weren’t into Sonic’s thighs, nor his uncomfortably realistic teeth. In fact there was a wave of criticism so high, its crash so punishing, that the studio conceded and went back to the drawing board. Director Jeff Fowler broke the news on Twitter:
Thank you for the support. And the criticism. The message is loud and clear... you aren't happy with the design & you want changes. It's going to happen. Everyone at Paramount & Sega are fully committed to making this character the BEST he can be... #sonicmovie #gottafixfast ✌️— Jeff Fowler (@fowltown) May 2, 2019
It’s too soon to call this a win for a few reasons. First, there’s nothing stopping the movie from still being bad come November. Also, everyone knows “different” doesn’t necessarily mean “better,” and what could this development mean for the poor Sonic production team at Paramount Studios? It wasn’t too long ago that we were discussing “crunch”—a phenomenon whereby creatives work unconscionable hours to meet a rapidly approaching deadline—with last October’s release of the sprawling, hyperrealistic Red Dead Redemption 2. This could also be a deep fake—maybe Paramount had two versions of Sonic to begin with, and created all this hoopla to drum up further interest in the movie. You can, after all, anticipate a negative response to any kind of deviation from the source material at this point.
Look at all the available evidence. Before the recent Twitter blowback, there were the Sonic Chronicles lawsuits—a protracted dispute involving an Archie Comic Sonic writer that, after a settlement with the Sega Corporation, set mandates for future comic books around details like just how much emotion Sonic is allowed to show and what kind of familial ties he’s allowed to have. Railing against Disney live-action remakes is nearly its own genre of criticism now. We have been discussing the uncanny blueness of Will Smith’s genie since the first Aladdin trailer dropped. The Lion King? Notice how ugly Scar is now. Grayed, defanged, his mane falling out in clumps? It’s erasure, is what it is. Remember how difficult it was for audiences to deal with Pikachu’s speaking actual words that weren’t just his name, which is canon? When the first taste of Pokémon Detective Pikachu arrived, there was Jigglypuff, standing on a diner counter, being furry. Having seen Jigglypuff on a Nintendo Game Boy display, a playing card, and a TV screen, I couldn’t tell you what Pokémon creators Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sugimori meant for the creature to feel to the touch, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to be furry.
This, that controlling Pokémon stake I feel I have because I watched Team Rocket experience agonizing failure every Saturday morning on Channel 10, is due partly to something called the “reminiscence bump.” Nostalgia is the longing for the past; it’s the reminiscence bump that makes you think the past is a special place. Essentially, you recall things from your childhood and early adulthood with the sharpest clarity, because that’s when you’re experiencing things for the first time, forming your sense of self, your sense of the world. You set down guideposts. You develop attachments. So Bill Nye says “fuck” on Last Week Tonight, or Mr. Ratburn finds love and personal fulfillment, or Ben Schwartz’s voice comes out of Sonic’s mouth, and poof—like the phrase that’s passed from actual grievance to stale Twitter joke and back again—your childhood is ruined.
The language is purposefully ridiculous. Despite the perception-shaking development that Sonic’s incisors are distinguishable from his molars, the world will continue to spin on its axis, the sun will come up tomorrow, we will still have Robin Williams’s “Prince Ali,” and we’ll still get to see Jim Carrey as Dr. Robotnik. Accepting that big studios are either out of ideas or otherwise incapable of elevating the good ones, the recycled hits will keep coming. That’s the simplest part of this—we are stuck with live-action remakes/adaptations/reboots and there are a lot of obstacles to a good live-action remake/adaptation/reboot. These movies have to make an old story new without noticeably changing too many of the most important details of it. (And being that these are self-contained stories well-defined in living memory, just about all of the details are important.) How do you make something current, but not gimmicky, and realistic while losing none of the magic? It’s to 2017’s Beauty and the Beast’s credit that it got close to shifting the weight of legacy; the dark and edgy approach, featuring Ewan McGregor’s face on a candelabra, nearly paid off.
The bar is even higher for action series. Consider 2010’s The Last Airbender (I’m so sorry). Even if it hadn’t been one of the worst things ever committed to film, it still would’ve bumped up against the fact that animated characters aren’t placeholders for actors, in the viewer’s mind. So it’s difficult to meet, much less exceed, their expectations, which are based on a specific and established visual style. How could Noah Ringer have ever hoped to move as fiercely, as gracefully, as beautifully as the animated Aang, which was still fresh in our minds? The Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series had just gone off the air in 2008. In 2010, well:
Aladdin, which arrives this Friday, can’t be as bad as Will Smith’s rapping parts of “Prince Ali” might suggest, and it certainly can’t be as bad as The Last Airbender. And even if it is (early returns indicate that it’s just fine), it won’t be the end of life as we know it, no matter how much we might carry on.