Meme fans and popcorn-munching drama-watchers may have fond memories of a particular moment in 2019, when the first images from Paramount Pictures’ Sonic the Hedgehog appeared online, and the internet went bananas. The character’s original CG design provoked a wave of vocal disgust over his naked, gloveless furry hands; his tiny, beady little eyes; his chunky, triangular blocks of head-fur; and worst of all, his weirdly detailed, tiny human teeth. In the wake of the public response, the character was quickly and substantially redesigned for the actual film release.
Now “Ugly Sonic,” the original design, is back. The character, voiced by I Think You Should Leave star Tim Robinson, has a surprisingly substantial role in the Disney Plus movie Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers, a Who Framed Roger Rabbit-style live-action movie teeming with recognizable animated characters who live alongside humans, and co-star with them in movies and television. First introduced at a fandom convention, signing autographs and coasting on his internet notoriety, Ugly Sonic (he bills himself that way, complete with a giant “Ugly Sonic” banner for his booth) comes across as a little smug and a little bitter about his brief, curtailed movie career. The role only gets bigger from there.
Director Akiva Schaffer, a Lonely Island member who previously directed Hot Rod and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, tells Polygon that Ugly Sonic’s presence was a highlight of the film for him, but that he can’t discuss what went into licensing the character. “It’s one of my favorite [cameos in the film],” he says. “I can speak to that. It’s one of my favorite things in the movie. And I’m very excited for people to see it … I don’t know what I should, what I’m allowed to say [about it]. I think I will actually plead the fifth.”
Chip ’N Dale: Rescue Rangers is packed with these animated cameos, ranging from classic Disney characters to TV obscurities to one of the more famous creations of underground comics artist Robert Crumb. None of those cameos is as high-profile and trademark-challenging as Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s memorable piano duel between Daffy Duck and Donald Duck, but they’re frequently startling in their range, which goes well beyond Disney.
“It was super-important to me to get a bunch of third-party cartoons, because if this is going to be some sort of a celebration of animation, it can’t just be a celebration of Disney animation,” Schaffer says. “You don’t want it to feel like an ad for Disney Plus.”
Just as with Who Framed Roger Rabbit or the cross-company video game character cameos from Wreck-It Ralph, the movie presented a copyright challenge. “The [characters] you see in the movie — sometimes we had to try two or three other things before we found one that could be licensed,” Schaffer says. “It was a process. […] You don’t usually come out of a movie and want to thank the lawyers, but we genuinely owe the Disney lawyers for being team players. [They] super stayed optimistic about it, and really saw the value of the third-party stuff, and they had to really work hard. … It’s easy for me to go, like, Oh, it would be cool if My Little Pony was in the movie, and they’re like, running in the hallways […] but then [the lawyers] have to go call Mattel and pitch them the movie, and tell them it’s not making fun of [the characters], and then I have to get on, and then blah, blah, blah. So it was a process. But you know, it makes [the movie] so much better.”
Frankly, Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers is absolutely making fun of the Ugly Sonic design, and the public response to it. But it’s fairly friendly humor. It does wind up confirming what internet rubberneckers thought back in 2019, though: Sonic’s human teeth really are creepy.
Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers is now streaming on Disney Plus.