Back in the 90s, when it came to video games, I was all about Sonic the Hedgehog. “Way past cool!” “Blast Processing!” “Do the Dew!” and all that shit. It was an era of neon green shorts with imitation paint splatters and slap bracelets that served no actual function. You had to be there. Owning a Sega Genesis, though, Sonic was my mascot of choice and his were some damn awesome games.
Perhaps not so awesome were his cartoons. ABC’s Sonic the Hedgehog Saturday morning cartoon was a wreck of uneven storytelling and a pale shadow of the Archie Sonic comic it was based off of (which, defying all odds, is still being published and is actually a fun read). UPN’s Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog had some inspired surrealist art design by cartoonist Milton Knight, while otherwise having the most uninspired “Cartoon 101” writing of all time. Then there was Sonic Underground, which came a little late in the game for me to have watched, but YouTube assures me that it was absolute shit:
The fact of the matter is, Sonic’s 90s cartoons pretty much unanimously sucked. You may have fond memories of them (I had fond memories of the ABC series), but those will disintegrate if you gather the fortitude for a re-watch (like I did; goodbye, fond memories). Bad animation… bad writing… bad character design… Jaleel White… the 90s were the best time for Sonic video games and the worst time for Sonic cartoons (not that the more recent Sonic X was a fucking masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination).
But there’s one Sonic cartoon that came out in 1996 that tends to get overlooked because it went straight to video and didn’t have Urkel in it. Sonic the Hegehog: The Movie, contrary to its English release title, wasn’t actually a “movie” but a pair of Japanese OVAs (“original video animation”) that happen to blend together rather seamlessly into an hour-long film, albeit one that can be bisected into two distinct stories. While it does take some liberties here and there, Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie avoids doing what the DiC produced American cartoons tended to do; that is, it doesn’t completely overhaul and revamp the characters, storyline and setting into something only vaguely resembling the source material. Sonic isn’t the leader of a gang of Freedom Fighter battling a cyborg Dr. Robotnik in a Blade Runner-esque dystopian future. Sonic isn’t a Bugs Bunny-like screwball prankster in a surreal Wacky Land where he outwits a dopey Dr. Robotnik with various unconvincing disguises and impressions. Sonic isn’t the lead guitarist of a rock band alongside his heretofore unseen brother and sister as they play Robin Hood to foil the greedy schemes of Sheriff Robotnik and his shape-shifting mutants.
Nope, he’s just a cool, laid back dude that hangs out on the beach until the goofy-yet-brilliant Dr. Robotnik concocts another master plan to destroy him and conquer the world. Perhaps that’s a little thin on story, sure, but it fills out an hour well enough and rather accurately reflects what we could see in the Genesis/32X/CD games (where Sonic is typically just chillin’ when Robotnik shows up with a Death Egg or whatever).
Sometimes less is more, DiC. Hello? DiC? Do you still exist? Because it wouldn’t surprise me if you don’t.
The plot is as follows: On the Planet Freedom, home of Sonic the Hedgehog (Martin Burke), Tails (Lainie Frasier) and Knuckles (Bill Wise), the evil Dr. Robotnik (Edwin Neil) is in trouble. His headquarters of Robotropolis has been taken over by the formidable Metal Robotnik, and to make matters worse, the power-generator is overheating. If it detonates, all of Planet Freedom will go with it. By taking the President and his bratty daughter Sara (Sascha Biesi) hostage, Robotnik coaxes Sonic and Tails to journey into Robotropolis, defeat Metal Robotnik and stop the generator from going kablooey. Then Metal Sonic shows up and shit gets real.
For those who are in the market for a heaping helping of 90s Sonic nostalgia without having to play the games or watch the god awful DiC cartoons, then Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie is most assuredly what you’re looking for. Having been released before the Sega Dreamcast era saw Sonic and all his buddies redesigned, Sonic bears his old school appearance. You know, the days when he used to look like this:
And not this:
It’s also a refreshing look at when the Sonic universe wasn’t so overcrowded with supporting characters, seemingly lifted directly from pig-yiffing furry fan fiction. The days when this sort of thing wasn’t the norm in Sonic the Hedgehog productions…
Nope, it’s just Sonic, Tails and Knuckles against Dr. Robotnik and Metal Sonic. Doesn’t get more old school than that.
While the animation isn’t theatrical film quality stuff, it’s still far and away better than anything DiC was outsourcing from South Korea in the 90s. It is very fluid and detailed with many an impressive action sequence (the freeway chase with Metal Robotnik is pretty well gorgeous). Most importantly, though, Sonic genuinely looks like he is moving FAST. The DiC cartoons, on their shoestring budget, never managed to translate that sort of sensation onto the screen. Sonic would move no faster than any other character, except he’d have some ugly “speed lines” grafted onto him and maybe a few crude “whoosh!” sound effects to complete the allusion.
No, Japanese animation company Studio Pierrot gets the idea of speed across and does so right off the bat. When Sonic first unleashes that burst of sprinting fury in the opening minutes of the film, running along the side of a cliff to rescue Tails and a stupid owl-guy, you immediately know that you’re in for a Sonic cartoon that doesn’t look like a bunch of underpaid Koreans puked onto a cel sheet.
The characterization for the established game characters is mostly accurate with perhaps one glaring oddity. Sonic is “too cool to care” and mostly apathetic about the needs of everyone around him, but mans up when things get hairy. Tails has the “mechanical prodigy” skill-set from the games that the DiC cartoon opted to ignore in lieu of making him useless. Dr. Robotnik has his oafish exterior but is a genuinely sinister and brilliant villain; he’s not the psychotic overlord of the ABC cartoon, nor is he the bumbling mongoloid of the Adventures series, but a balance of foolish and malicious. Metal Sonic is an evil robot, but there’s a smidgen of characterization at the end for him. Knuckles, though – in addition to an inexplicable “Crocodile Dundee” hat, is now a wandering treasure hunter instead of guardian of the Floating Island. Ah whatever; you can only pack so much back story into 60 minutes.
The original characters are generally forgettable. Sara gets the most screen time among them, as Dr. Robotnik takes a turn for the lecherous side halfway through the thing and attempts to force the teenage girl to marry him. She’s mostly “perv fodder”, as Metal Sonic inadvertently peeks up her skirt and Tails accidentally gropes her during a rescue (much to Sonic’s disapproval). It’s fairly innocent stuff, but it’s clear she’s only there for the “sex appeal”, if you can call it that. The fact that she’s basically a human but with kitty ears and a tail implies some sort of horrific bestiality-laden parentage which I’d rather not think about.
The DVD, released in 1999 by ADV, offers optional English audio or Japanese audio with English subtitles, so you can take your pick (if you can afford it; used copies on Amazon go for $70 bucks and up). The Japanese cast is solid, though I don’t much care for their interpretation of Sonic; too deep and old-sounding instead of young and reckless. The English dub is almost hilariously bad, with Sonic having an accent of indeterminate origin while Tails just sounds like an adult woman with a head cold. Knuckles sounds about spot on, but the real highlight of awesomeness is Edwin Neal as Dr. Robotnik. Who is Edwin Neal, you ask?
The writers for the English language “re-versioning” were surprisingly competent in their Sonic knowledge, too. In addition to the script actually being a clever and natural-sounding translation, the characters and places get their proper English-version names in place of the Japanese monikers (yes, there was a time when we didn’t call him “Eggman” in the United States and I miss it dearly). It can even get a little obscure, as they rename “Eggman Land” as “Robotropolis”, the capital city of Dr. Robotnik’s empire from the ABC cartoon and Archie comic. If the writers missed one opportunity, it was that they didn’t rename “Planet Freedom” as “Planet Mobius”, but I’ll forgive them that oversight (Hell, we don’t even call it that anymore in the US, anyway).
Honestly, Sonic doesn’t have a lot of good cartoons to choose from, despite having starred in far too many over the past twenty-something years. I’ve already gone on at length as to why the DiC cartoons were trash, but the Japanese series Sonic X wasn’t a whole heck of a lot better, suffering from consistent yet sleepy animation (a trait of many Japanese cartoons) and a tendency to focus on peripheral characters to the point of making Sonic a guest star in his own cartoon series. Really, Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie is the only Sonic cartoon I would recommend seeking out and watching (well, aside from those animated bookending clips from Sonic CD). It’s a great throwback to the glory days of Sonic in the 90s, eliminating all the crap we’re better off forgetting. Solid animation and story pacing, and aside from a few pervy gags, it’s perfectly suitable for youngsters (the DVD even recommends 7+). If you can’t find the DVD at a reasonable price, I’m certain you can watch it through…uhh, “other means,” and if you haven’t yet, there are worse ways to kill 60 minutes.