At one point in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Dr. Robotnik (the little blue alien’s maniacal-genius nemesis, played with relish by Jim Carrey), is running through a gauntlet of ancient booby traps protecting the movie’s big glowing McGuffin, the Master Emerald. The traps include a gigantic boulder, which rumbles and rolls behind Robotnik as he zips through a stone hallway. “I don’t want to die like this!” he cries out. “It’s derivative!”
If that’s truly Robotnik’s chief concern, Sonic 2 is rife with peril. In addition to this lampshaded Raiders of the Lost Ark knockoff, the movie steals ideas, moments, and occasionally direct lines of dialogue from The Incredibles, The Avengers, Talladega Nights, and Rush Hour, among others.
Maybe some of this is supposed to be homage, like the way Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) calls the movie Snow Dogs “the woooooorst” in the frequently GIF’d sing-song cadence of Schwartz’s Parks and Recreation character, Jean-Ralphio Sanderson. Either way, the frantic shameless grabbing at cultural knicknacks defines the experience of watching Sonic the Hedgehog 2. This sequel is technically more fun and more engaging than its predecessor — while placing its strongest emphasis on the more part. Robotnik’s concern about dying a derivative death makes sense — Carrey’s scenes are the only moments where the Sonic movies start to feel like they might formulate a distinctive comic voice.
Even he’s operating with a borrowed voice, though. Dr. Robotnik, also known as the Eggman, isn’t a pantheon-level Carrey creation (or re-creation, given that he, like Sonic and his alien pals, are drawn from the video game series). Robotnik isn’t as fiendishly amped-up as Carrey’s Riddler in 1995’s Batman Forever, or as elastic as his astonishing antics as beleaguered lawyer Fletcher in 1997’s Liar Liar. Carrey’s greatest-hits approach to Robotnik only feels freeing by comparison, because the character is a flesh-and-blood lunatic inhabited by a masterful physical comedian, rather than a cute-but-weightless CG creation.
Sonic 2 opens with an inspired blast of Carrey silliness, as Robotnik contends with being exiled on a mushroom planet back in the first Sonic movie. Eventually, one of his nonsensical inventions issues a distress beacon, answered by Knuckles (Idris Elba), a bright red echidna and proud warrior in search of the Master Emerald. Robotnik offers to help him acquire it, and the two villains make their way back to Earth, where Sonic is attempting to act as a solo superhero, against the warnings of his human buddy Tom (James Marsden).
When Tom and his wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter) leave town to attend a wedding, Sonic is left to his own devices — so of course the bad guys show up to test his mettle. Their arrival coincides with fellow alien Tails (Colleen O’Shaughnessey), who took notice of Sonic’s electromagnetic pulse from the first movie, and has been using his self-made gadgets to watch and admire him from across the universe. He adores Sonic as much as any young gamer, and offers his assistance.
This all sets Sonic and Tails on a game-like quest where they’re meant to follow an old map and race to the Emerald, while navigating action sequences that each have their own game-level-esque themes: avalanche, water, temple, etc. But the three-man screenwriting team can’t get out of their own way, or drop the franchise-standard overplotting. They bring the action to Hawaii, where Maddie’s sister Rachel (Natasha Rothwell) is about to marry Randall (Shemar Moore). At first, this seems like one plot device — a reason for Maddie and Tom to leave town. Then it turns out to be another, much stranger one, involving Randall’s secret Rachel-infuriating agenda, which is intricately connected to the movie’s mythos, while having almost no bearing on anything that happens afterward.
This is more of a bizarre detour than a full derailment. (Also, a narrow focus group — my 6-year-old daughter — found Rothwell’s vengeful behavior very funny. She also pointed out, with no prompting, that this part of the story makes absolutely no sense. When a 6-year-old notices your film’s plot holes…) The sidebar does help pad the movie out to two full hours — which is a long time to spend with Sonic, considering how few of his wisecracks land.
Sonic should be an appealing action hero, combining fast-and-furious attitude with the zippy mischief of Quicksilver in the X-Men movies. Sadly, two entries in, director Jeff Fowler still hasn’t cracked open a great cartoony action sequence. The avalanche chase and hidden-temple scenes are fun enough, but they never move with grace or cleverness. Sonic just goes fast as his movie struggles to keep up — and struggles to juggle its endless check-ins with superfluous side characters. (Why is Adam Pally still here?)
As ever, it’s up to Carrey to provide the real fireworks: doing a succession of spit-takes, plastering himself against the windshield of a car, and referring to Knuckles as a “truculent space bumpkin,” among other deliciously overwritten insults. Sticking Robotnik with Knuckles for much of the running time seems like an excuse to let Carrey solo opposite a character who wasn’t really on set, so it’s a nice surprise that Knuckles is pretty funny, too, with Elba converting his dire pronouncements into deadpan parody.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 has just enough laughs to make its shopworn lessons about the value of friendship and (brace yourself) teamwork feel like part of a harmlessly amusing kids’ movie, rather than an insidious way of training kids to expect and even demand franchise bloat. If Carrey makes good on his recent promise to retire from acting, the inevitable Sonic 3 might well meet a derivative death after all.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 debuts in theaters on April 6.