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Sonic the Hedgehog movie review: A visual delight you'll fast forget

Streaming early, the Sega icon's cinematic debut is at its best when Sonic goes quick -- but the script doesn't always keep up.

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Sonic the Hedgehog is a charmer, even if the script doesn't quite match up to Ben Schwartz's excellent performance.

Paramount Pictures

It's been 29 years since Sonic the Hedgehog sprinted into our lives in his first Sega Genesis adventure, dazzling gamers with his blistering speed and colorful video game world. Turns out those are the best parts of his live-action cinematic debut too.

Following its theatrical release, Sonic is one of several recent blockbusters coming to streaming earlier than expected due to the coronavirus pandemic. You can buy Sonic the Hedgehog starting March 31.

True to its hero's speedy ways, director Jeff Fowler's movie blasts through Sonic's origin very quickly indeed. The anthropomorphic blue hedgehog (played with charming breathlessness by Ben Schwartz) flees his home world and comes to Earth because nameless bad guys are hunting him for his powers. He lives in hiding near Green Hills, Montana, but gets lonely as the years pass.

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Being Dr. Robotnik's goon ain't easy, but Agent Stone offers a nice contrast to his boss.

Paramount Pictures

After a goof brings Sonic to the government's attention, he seeks help from local cop Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) as he's hunted by Dr. Robotnik. Jim Carrey plays the villainous scientist, using the comic physicality that made him famous in the '90s to turn Sonic's nemesis into an evil version of Ace Ventura. His manic routine consistently entertains, and he's wisely paired with straight man Agent Stone (Lee Majdoub) in most of his scenes. 

That energy doesn't carry through to the rest of the movie, however, where a shallow script lets it down. Many of the jokes fall flat as screenwriters Josh Miller and Patrick Casey lean a little too heavily on pop culture references that'll date quickly -- it lacks the hints of darkness that gave last year's Pokemon: Detective Pikachu a broader appeal.

Thankfully, Marsden has oodles of charm, and his relationships with Sonic and wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter) give the adventure a solid emotional core. (Disclosure: CNET is owned by ViacomCBS, which also owns Sonic distributor Paramount.)

The movie is also a visual treat, with CGI Sonic fitting beautifully into the real world. His initial design was revised following some pretty intense fan backlash; his new look is much closer to the classic games and it's a vast improvement. The same fans who've been appeased by Sonic's new appearance will also delight in the subtle references to the games and cartoon.

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Tom Wachowski and Sonic's road trip brings them across the western US.

Paramount Pictures

His super-speed is a whole lot of fun to watch too. A scene in which the camera can't keep up with Sonic as he darts around is delightful, and leads to a spectacular final battle. We also get a couple of scenes in which time slows to a crawl to reflect Sonic's speed like the standout moments with Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past and Apocalypse -- this movie revels in the comedy of such powers even more than they did.

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However, Robotnik's drones are a bit too sleek, realistic and boring. Their aesthetic fails to live up to their master's colorful personality, but gives Sonic a chance to make a fun comparison to Amazon delivery drones at one point.

It's a shame Sonic the Hedgehog's forgettable jokes don't live up to its visuals, but it's a decent cinematic start for the blue blur and leaves me with the hope of an even more adventurous sequel down the line. And if you're an old-school gamer who's still trapped in the Sega vs. Nintendo console wars of the '90s, rest assured that Sonic's first movie is a whole lot better than Mario's.

Originally published Feb. 12.