'Sonic' and the Costs of Fan Anger

Feb 17, 2020 12:10 PM
agency and controlsonic the hedgehogfan entitlementuse of the mediamedia and audience influence

'Sonic the Hedgehog' | Courtesy Paramount Pictures and Sega of America

Sonic the Hedgehog is currently speeding through theaters, but his road to get there wasn’t without a few speed bumps. In fact, there was a time when we could have been watching a very different looking Sonic run across our screens. While one day it will all be a piece of movie trivia, there are few now who can forget the first trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog, and the controversy that ensued. It was the spring of 2019 and the internet was still abuzz over the adorableness of Detective Pikachu. Then came the Sonic trailer. There had been rumors of course, reactions from cinema conventions, silhouettes of theater standees, and leaked images that some swore, even prayed were fan made. But it was all real, and to see it in motion was something else. The first trailer for Sonic wasn’t just a trip to the uncanny valley, it took us all the way down into the uncanny cavern. The response from fans and non-fans was immediate, and loud, and Paramount, fearing its would-be franchise would be dead before arrival, pushed the release date and had the VFX team redesign Sonic with an appearance far closer to that of the Sega games. That’s the power of the internet; the power of fandom. But where do we draw the line between artistic vision and fan approval? And what’s the cost of either side winning?

The case of Sonic seems relatively clear cut, and with all due respect to the VFX artists involved, the comparison between the original, gangly-legged Sonic with a mouth full of teeth, and the current version reveals a clear winner. The intention behind the original design isn’t lost on us. That model does look less cartoony and more akin to something biological, and able to believably appear alongside human actors. But that doesn’t mean that it’s good looking design or that there isn’t something eerie about it. Still, good decision or not, it was the decision of director Jeff Fowler, and if we’re going to fight for creative freedom in studio movies then maybe we have to fight for the ugly bits too. There’s certainly a case to be made for that side of the coin, and having seen the film, wherever Fowler went wrong with that original design, which made have worked better as concept art than as an animated entity, he certainly got it right with the other aspects of the film. The movie is a good family film with a lot of heart, strong performances, and innovative action sequences, something that would have remained true regardless of how Sonic looked. But there’s a chance that a significant amount of the audience who will show up this weekend would not have shown up had the original design been kept.