My World of Flops Case File #122/My Year of Flops II #19 The Sonic the Hedgehog Trailer
There was a time, simultaneously not that long ago and an eternity away, when filmmakers who wanted the feedback of the general public on an upcoming project they’d need to rent out a mall in San Diego and show it to a group of bored tourists chosen to represent the taste of the general public. The terrible, terrible taste of the mouth-breathing masses.
This barbaric practice is known as test screening and focus group testing. I experienced it from the other side when the pilot episode of Movie Club with John Ridley, my poorly rated, increasingly reputable (alum include an Oscar-winner, a MacArthur Genius grant recipient and the co-screenwriter of Guillermo Del Toro’s upcoming remake of Nightmare Alley) was focus group tested.
All I remember about the focus group report was that it stated that “more than one” member of the focus group expressed the opinion that “all the male critics on the show were gay” and that “the show, as a whole, was too gay.”
As that anecdote conveys, the test screening and focus group testing process reflects a lot of humanity’s stupidity, ignorance and prejudice along with their opinions on various characters and scenes. At its worst, this process is in the enemy of art. When I think of focus group testing I think of Sergio Leone pouring years of his life, and every last bit of his body and soul and energy into making his epic American masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America only to see huge chunks of it hacked away by editor Zach Staenberg, whose recent credits included Police Academy, without his permission or the approval of the Italian master after Leone’s haunting final film didn’t wow slack-jacked yokels at test screenings.
They say that the stress of Once Upon a Time in America being taken away from him ultimately killed Leone, that a film reel became sentient and strangled the Duck, You Sucker! director in his sleep. That’s probably not entirely true but focus group testing certainly has played havoc with many luckless motion pictures through the decades.
I’m partial to the curious cautionary tale of James L. Brooks’ I’ll Do Anything. The Simpsons mogul decided to make a simultaneously intimate and epic movie about a subject guaranteed to resonate with the American people like his previous film Terms of Endearment. He’d dreamed up a premise that promised to play in Peoria, so to speak: a comedy-drama about neurotic Hollywood types and the focus group process featuring songs by Prince and choreography by Twyla Tharp.
Alas, focus groups thought the whole “musical” aspect of Brooks’ unique musical wasn’t quite working so one of the most successful creators in American entertainment cut out all the songs and the movie limped to an unmourned critical and commercial death as an ex-musical with music from the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.
Thanks to the instant feedback loop of the internet filmmakers no longer need to pay for costly test screenings to learn what the public thinks of upcoming projects. To get a big old blast of intense feedback, positive or negative, all they need to do is release a poster and/or a trailer and then instantaneously the internet renders a verdict.
Some of these verdicts have been wonderfully, iconically perverse. The internet, in its sometimes exquisite, sometimes regrettable immaturity and shameless stupidity, decided that it would be really cool, or at least good for an ironic, knowing chuckle, if a PG-13 movie entitled Snakes on a Plane featured Samuel L. Jackson yelling the line, "I want these motherfucking snakes off the motherfucking plane!”
The filmmakers acquiesced with re-shoots including one featuring Jackson’s shouting his now-signature line. Hollywood was cravenly doing the internet’s bidding in a way that was kind of fun and also kind of sad.
More recently Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega’s blindingly fast, bright blue answer to Mario The Overachieving Plumber received one of the internet’s greatest drubbings in both poster and trailer form. Motherfuckers were coming back from the dead solely so they could dunk on the preposterous and terminally 2019 notion that Sonic the Hedgehog’s design must fall in line with the curious modern madness that lovable children’s characters from our collective past must be redesigned to fit our gritty, revisionist age.
Executive producer Tim Miller, who unleashed a profane, fourth-wall shattering rapscallion by the name of Deadpool upon a grateful world as the director of his first solo effort said of the famously horrible, widely despised, more or less universally hated original design, “The first thing you need to do is put limits on it. If you can do anything, nothing is special. For me, it’s always about keeping it grounded and keeping it realistic.”
Ah yes, grounded and realistic. Those are the first two words that spring to mind when I think of the video game and cartoon character Sonic the Hedgehog, followed closely by “verisimilitude” and “Italian Neo-Realism.” Rumor has it when Jaleel “Urkel” White voiced Sonic in his animated incarnation in the 1990s he drove producers and editors crazy by doing take after take, always insisting that any individual line could be “more realistic”, “truer to Sonic’s essential self” and “more in keeping with the real-life chattering of actual hedgehogs.”
White reportedly brought hedgehogs into the recording studio to more accurately mimic their sounds and utterances. Like the makers of the Sonic the Hedgehog movie, he would stop at nothing in his mad quest to provide the realism video game and kiddie cartoon audiences crave.
The problem with giving Sonic more realistic, human proportions is that it invites all kinds of awkward questions for which there are no non-creepy, non-weird answers. Does Sonic sweat? How rancid and gross must his disgusting fur be after a day of running at such blinding, dazzling speeds? Do his thighs rub together when he’s at full-speed, creating painful to the point of debilitating chafing? Does Sonic the Hedgehog get painful charley horses from all that running?
Why does Sonic have calf muscles? What’s going on with those sneakers? How bad must those sneakers reek? What happened to his eyes? Who stole this adorable creature’s soul and transformed him into a monster?
Sonic the Hedgehog 1.0 was in danger of becoming the first high-profile cuddly creature based on a beloved animal children grew up loving not to inspire widespread lust among the Furry community. In their misplaced zeal to create a more realistic Sonic they’ve created something rare and remarkable: the first animal icon so repulsively designed that he’s more or less Furry-proof.
The response to the poster of the new-look, “realistic” Sonic was universal disdain and mockery. These cursed images empowered the internet to do what it does best, or at least most enthusiastically: slice and dice and re-purpose something weird and wrong and somehow right through memes and mockery and smartass re-contextualization.
Then came the release of the official Sonic the Hedgehog trailer and the powerful Sonic the Hedgehog Mockery Machine roared back to life with renewed vigor and purpose.
Of course it did not help that the Sonic the Hedgehog trailer was released around the same time as the trailers for Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, another contemporary cinematic vehicle for a beloved pop culture icon with an unhealthy hold on our culture’s collective inner child.
Detective Pikachu is so adorable you just want to pinch the little guy’s cheeks and give him a big hug. He’s so fluffy and furry! And look, he’s wearing a little detective hat, just like Sherlock Holmes! Who’s a good little detective? Pikachu is! Oh yes you are! Oh, yes you are!
Sonic the Hedgehog, on the other hand, you want to banish to the Phantom Zone, to the Land of Wind and Ghosts, for being an abomination upon the lord and a pox upon the land.
The trailer for Detective Pikachu makes you want to Pokemon Go! To the movie theater to see it, the same way Hillary Clinton’s famous admonition that everyone should “Pokemon Go!” To the polls and vote for her resulted in the biggest electoral victory in human history.
The trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog, in sharp contrast, generated such toxic buzz that director Jeff Fowler tweeted, presumably from a deep, deep pool of flop sweat, “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 🔧✌️”
Not even the use of fun emojis can mask the understandable fear behind that tweet. Fowler was essentially assuring the public “We’re listening! You told us we suck and we’re terrified of failure and letting you down, so we’re making enormous changes at the last minute, not unlike the obscure Kevin Bacon vehicle Enormous Changes at the Last Minute to stave off surefire disaster on an epic scale."
Changing a central component of an upcoming motion picture due to bad buzz is not unprecedented, necessarily, but it is rare and it rarely happens in such a painfully visible, high-profile way. Then again, social media has radically transformed the way we think about and consume films so it makes sense that an announcement like that would be made on Twitter to an audience infinitely more interested in laughing at Sonic the Hedgehog and his nightmarishly human-looking design than in laughing with him.
I’m not too proud to admit that even though I don’t remember playing Sonic the Hedgehog, simply hearing the sound effect associated with rapid gold ring acquisition induced a shiver of Pavlovian delight and took me back to my days renting Sega games to nerds at Blockbuster in the early 1990s, Sonic the Hedgehog’s heyday, when he was immersed in a feverish war for gamers’ hearts with Nintendo’s Mario.
Sonic the Hedgehog doesn’t mean shit to me but I was born in 1976, so I’m nostalgic for him all the same.
Before we see Sonic the Hedgehog in all of his full, Cronenbergian, Lovecraftian horror we see the world from his perspective in speedy POV shots that recall, consciously or otherwise, John Carpenter’s extensive and very effective use of POV shots to put Halloween audiences inside the skin of Michael Myers. That’s appropriate because Sonic the Hedgehog is body horror and nightmare fuel instead of the adorable blue scamp we grew up with.
Ben Schwartz is the voice of Sonic the Hedgehog, improbably. That casting feels like a Comedy Bang Bang joke—that Mr. Solo Bolo would somehow snag a gig like that—that somehow made it into the real world as a perverse non-joke. Schwartz sounds like there are ironic air quotes around everything he says, that he’s making fun of the notion of Sonic the Hedgehog as a high-concept motion picture protagonist even as he’s voicing the lead role in a 90 million dollar Sonic the Hedgehog movie. That’s 90 million dollars before they realized they had to Pokemon go! back and change what the title character looks like.
If Sonic, with his inexplicably, disturbingly human teeth, filthy, smelly-looking fur and unnervingly detailed leg muscles was universally panned his arch-nemesis, Doctor Robotnik received a much warmer welcome because it marks the return of Jim Carrey in full-on, Ace Ventura/Mask, “Somebody stop me!” mode after going away for a while and half-assedly re-inventing himself as a professional man of sorrow, a philosopher-clown more interested in examining the meaning of life than in making people laugh.
At the height of their fame, who could have envisioned that Carrey and George W. Bush would experience curious second lives as painters using the brush and easel to soothe their tormented psyches and their unlikely artistry to comment upon humanity, and wordlessly but powerfully convey how they see the world?
Once Jim Carrey was known as a well-compensated clown who amused the younglings with antics such as making his butt talk. Now he’s a walking tragedy who makes sad paintings to convey his disgust and horror at the sins and arrogance of the Trump administration. He’s someone who has made hating Trump on a deep, primal, soul-deep level a core component of his persona, identity and image. He’s a Zen master who has weathered many a storm but come through with his love of over-acting, scenery-chewing and heavy-handed political commentary intact.
It looks like we get the old Jim Carrey back in Sonic the Hedgehog. Yay? Now the filmmakers are going back and trying to give audiences the old Sonic the Hedgehog as well. Is it too late? Can a trailer that is a big enough failure to inspire a My World of Flops Case File spawn a movie that isn’t a flop? Probably not, so I look forward to writing up the movie itself in this here column in roughly six months time.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success? Fiasco
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