'Sonic 2' Director and Star Reveal Their Favorite Game References

As the movie hits Paramount Plus, actor Ben Schwartz and director Jeff Fowler talk about the sense of danger Knuckles brings to the movie, and they reflect on Sonic and Tails' friendship.

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Sean Keane
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Sonic 2 plane (with Tails)

Sonic and Tails fly into battle in Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

Paramount Pictures

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 hit Paramount Plus on Monday, after a wildly successful theatrical run last month, and it follows on from the 2020 original by reuniting Sonic voice actor Ben Schwartz and director Jeff Fowler for another eye-poppingly colorful adventure inspired by Sega's iconic video game series.

The sequel sees Sonic's old nemesis Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) teaming up with an intense Knuckles (Idris Elba) to hunt down a reality-altering artifact and take revenge on our hedgehog hero. Sonic isn't alone though -- the classic game's famous sidekick Tails (Colleen O'Shaughnessey) arrives on Earth to help stop Robotnik's fiendish plans.

From opening scene to post-credits tease, the movie pays homage to the three decades of Sonic games . That's something that Schwartz, whom you might know from beloved sitcom Parks and Recreation, and Fowler, who previously directed Oscar-nomination animated short Gopher Broke, were determined to double down on as the sequel leaned hard into the source material.

Sonic 2 Robotnik and Stone

Robotnik's return delights his henchman Agent Stone, but spells trouble for Sonic.

Paramount Pictures

I got to geek out about Sonic with the personable Schwartz and enthusiastic Fowler over Zoom ahead of the movie's release, touching on Knuckles' rivalry with Sonic, the characters' heart-warming personal journeys and delicious video game Easter eggs.

Here's a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity. We avoid any major spoilers, but might reveal some classic game references. If you want to be totally surprised by those elements, come back after you've seen the movie.

CNET: Sonic 2 brought me back to being a child in the '90s, and the marketing leans heavily on the rivalry between Sonic and Knuckles -- an element I remember from Sonic 3 like it was yesterday.  Ben, why is Sonic still cooler than Knuckles? Or vice versa, if you're feeling controversial.
I'm gonna stick up for Sonic, I'm always gonna stick up for Sonic. I feel like Sonic is that kid in your class who has all this heart. He's a heart-forward-type character, and also loves making people laugh. So for that reason, I mean come on, how do you not root for Sonic?

Knuckles in Sonic 2

Knuckles crackles with intensity throughout the movie.

Paramount Pictures

Jeff, why is Knuckles cooler than Sonic?
Oh, you're gonna get me in a lot of trouble with that question. I don't know if I want to pick a side, but one of the things that's so great about having 30 years of video games is that there are storylines that are incredibly popular with the fans. 

Going all the way back to the early '90s, Knuckles' introduction into Sonic was as a very formidable adversary -- he's got super strength, Sonic's got super speed. It was just a really simple but very exciting clash of characters that we just felt would be great material for the sequel. 

I love them both. Ben just absolutely crushes it as Sonic every time out. Then Idris coming in as Knuckles, I was just floored by what he was able to do with the character. I think fans are gonna absolutely love it.

Rewatching the first one recently and then the sequel, it struck me that it would've been so easy to make Sonic a shallow cool dude in these movies. I was amazed at how much I got into his emotional journey. Ben, can you speak to where he's at in Sonic 2?
I love that you say that, because one of the big things we try to do in these movies is to get people to care about Sonic. In the first one, the idea that he's all by himself, and he has no friends and he has nobody to turn to, I wanted people to feel that. But when the triumphs happen or he gets defeated, you feel those the same way.

Sonic 2 Blue Justice

Sonic's crimefighting career isn't quite as successful as he'd hoped.

Paramount Pictures

In the second one, he's growing up like kids do and not really listening to the advice that's been given to him by his parental-type figures [Tom and Maddie Wachowski, played by James Marsden and Tika Sumpter]. And he thinks he can do everything by himself. He's a superhero now, he just defeated Robotnik, don't tell him what to do -- he can do everything. 

This movie is hopefully echoing things that people go through as kids and as adults, when you think you can take care of everything and take on the world by yourself. But it's OK to ask for help. It's OK to understand that in order to get things done, you need your friends, you need your co-workers. 

That's where Tails comes in. And it's very fun to see Tails come from a different planet and be the sycophant of Sonic, someone who loves Sonic so much. And so I love that dynamic of those two, and then those two together against Knuckles is video game [chef's kiss].


Tails takes inspiration from his new pal Sonic.

Paramount Pictures

Jeff, how do you balance all the classic Sonic imagery with making the characters relatable?
It can't just be all about imagery, it can't just be about action -- there's gotta be some substance to it. A lot of the material really was already there. Tails' story is very relatable. He was teased as a young fox, having two tails, and he was an outsider. And in Sonic he sees the hero he wants to be, he looks up to Sonic very much like a kid brother looking at his big brother. That's so grounded.

And it's part of the canon, it's part of what fans love about the characters, so we just lean heavily into that. If you know nothing about the game series, and you're coming into a theater, you're still going to be moved by it because those are very relatable themes.

Sonic 2 poster

The classic biplane image was one of the movie's visual starting points.

Paramount Pictures

What game references are each of you most proud of?
One of the most iconic images from the Sonic 2 video game is Tails flying the biplane with Sonic on the wing. It's such an iconic image of Sonic being delivered to battle by his friend. From the first day of planning for the sequel, I was just like "We have to do that. That's got to be a big movie moment."

There's so much great imagery from the 30 years of games. The level designs, the concept art -- it's an embarrassment of riches. It definitely makes our job a lot easier, to have such a great visual foundation as we make our plans.

Schwartz: I love that if you look at Robotnik's drones and droids, there's some that look like little wasps that come out. But also the backgrounds like the maze, there's a lot of different things that allude to different levels that were in Sonic. I also just like what happens to Sonic when he's underwater. 

The water scene blew my mind -- the anxiety.
Oh my goodness, there's nothing more nerve-wracking as a child than being underwater in Sonic the Hedgehog and seeing the numbers pop up with how many seconds you have left. It's terrifying.

We're always trying to make sure we're keeping the fans happy, but also never being so specific, where people who haven't seen the franchise or played the games feel alienated. Jeff does an incredible job with that. 

So there's references throughout, even personal references from stuff I've done that Sonic says, and then outside of that there's references all throughout the video games. So I think people are gonna be really psyched. If you play the games, it's just gonna be full of little secrets we've left for you. And if you haven't, it's still like an action-packed, incredible, funny movie, and you'll get the references a little bit later when your friends tell you.

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