-Making a Successful Sonic Movie-
Part 1: History and Adaptations
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SONIC THE HEDGEHOG
Sonic was from inception a mascot rival to Mario: a speedier, edgier version of the rival personality. According to his interviews with his Japanese creators he was built from a combination of traits tailored to make him appreciable from a design standpoint alone. His stance, and gestures were modeled after pop sensation Michael Jackson, his attitude was meant to reflect the can-do spirit of charismatic president Bill Clinton, even his shoes were colored red to invoke the universal symbol of joy: Santa Claus.
His first name was Mr. Needle Nose but an overseas publicity agent figured the name 'Sonic' had more sell.
Sonic's first game was nearly without a central plot, like most platform games of the time, which were more about diverse game, play then distinction due to story.
The original translated manual says this:
'Somewhere in the ocean lies a mysterious island not found on any map, known by its inhabitants as South Island. The reason for it being absent is a simple, yet mysterious one: it does not have a fixed position, instead traveling through the seas on its own course. While the reason for this behavior is unknown, it is rumored that it may have something to do with the legendary gemstones known as the Chaos Emeralds. Though legend says they exist on the island, no one knows exactly where they are or how to get a hold of them. All they do know is of the incredible power they are said to contain, and how they can give energy to all living beings.
Learning of the existence of the Chaos Emeralds, the mad genius Dr. Eggman sets himself on a quest to locate the emeralds for his own use, wanting to harness their power for his many mechanical creations. With the plan in motion, Eggman creates his base in a corner of the island, which he dubs the Scrap Brain Zone. However, he is aware that his evil plans will more than likely be interfered by Sonic the Hedgehog.
Though not a native of the island, Sonic the Hedgehog would often find himself on its mystical shores, and more than once had he run into the evil doctor, foiling an untold number of schemes. Just as Eggman predicted, in no time at all does the blue hedgehog learn of the doctor's intentions, running at sonic speed to confront him.
It doesn't take long for Sonic to realize that something is amiss, and is shocked to learn that Eggman has gone a step further with his evil intentions. Kidnapping the many animals living on the island, he has methodically been placing them in robot shells and using them to scour the island in search of the emeralds. Realizing that Eggman has turned Sonic's friends into his own personal mechanical army, Sonic wastes no time. Running across the island, he must not only stop Eggman's latest scheme and gather the Chaos Emeralds, but free his friends in the process.
"Hurry! Sonic the Hedgehog - everyone is waiting for your help!"
Sounds a little similar to
'In a land far beyond human imagination, lies a magical place called the Mushroom Kingdom. The Mushroom Kingdom is always sunny, and food is plentiful year round. The Kingdom was ruled by a gentle and peace-loving Mushroom King and his daughter, Princess Toadstool (who would later come to be known as Princess Peach.) The Mushroom people were living peacefully, and all was bliss.
Then one dark day a tribe of evil turtles named "Koopa" led by the tyrannical King Bowser invaded the tranquil Kingdom. There was a terrible war. The Mushroom people fought courageously but they were no match for the vicious turtles. They were easily defeated by the Turtle Tribe, and horrible Bowser's black magic turned all the Mushroom people into stones, bricks and even horsehair plants.
Princess Toadstool, the only one with the power to free the Kingdom from the evil power of Bowser, was captured and exiled to a deep dungeon in a faraway castle.
Mario, a man of courage and determination, heard of the awful fate of the Mushroom people. He decided to save the fair Princess and free the citizens of the Mushroom Kingdom from the evil control of Bowser. This is where the legend ends, and the adventure begins.
The fate of the beautiful princess and the Mushroom people is now in your hands!'
So Sonic did not begin with an eminently memorable or even original plot.
Interestingly enough that would come to it when the rights to the character were turned over to an animation studio for an American cartoon series, one of several that were being made at the time to cash in on the Nintendo/Sega video game craze.
His first outing was a traditional wacky Loony Tunes inspired half hour show called The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog revolving around cocksure Sonic outwitting the overweight dullard Robotnik as he tried to perpetrate various flavors of ineffectual evil.
Perhaps a first however another show was being aired at the same time as Adventures run simply titled Sonic the Hedgehog. As opposed to the vibrant and manic approach of it's sister show, this show was reflective of the opposite spectrum also prevalent in cartoons at the time: darker, action science fiction.
The creators expressed an interest in making Sonic the Hedgehog into a plot/character driven comedic drama as opposed to one more instance of wacky characters enacting madcap antics. The timing of episodes from the show led to a colloquial name for it, probably to distinguish it from Adventures as well: SAT-AM.
Neither show was a rousing success but both inspired a dedicated community of fans long after they had left the airwaves. Concurrent comic series, interestingly with their own divergent storylines and ideas, came to light in America and Europe: Fleetway's Sonic the Comic for the UK and the Archie Sonic Series for the U.S. Here as well more history and personality was injected into the license, much of it becoming accepting cannon.
As of this writing the Archie Sonic Series, continued by fans online, is the longest running franchise-based comic book in American history.
The Japanese irritated by the American/UK interpretation of their character released their own series Sonic X to show how they felt the character should be portrayed in an anime style. Ironically a lot of new characters and storylines from this show would later be adapted and re-written in the American/UK comic series.
As for his consol career, Sonic had a nice long run even eclipsing Mario's previously indomitable presence with his own line of platform and party games.
However with the jump to three-dimensional graphics Mario excelled and Sonic took a long time to catch up. His latest endeavors have either been so poorly received they are now popularly associated with poor decisions (Sonic 2006) or lukewarmly received mostly be hardcore fans only (Sonic Colors, Sonic Generations). His star has certainly fallen, his games including those entering back into two-dimensional retreads of his classic style widely regarded as the last gasp of a once great but hopelessly lost hero from a bygone era. Even the official comic storyline has come under fire for taking a morbid interest in the deaths or suffering of major characters.
Sonic's latest appearance has been a non voice-acting part in a Progressive commercial.
But his fan base remains dedicated to both his games and wait in hope for some sort of revival.
Sonic has always been very very fast, and running quickly as well as jumping and spinning has been his defining ability. The reason for his sprinting prowess isn't provided in the original game and is assumed to derive from his speedy appearance solely much in the way Mario wears a hat because hair was difficult to animate.
When Sonic entered into animation and comics the reason behind his speed was explored further in multiple ways. SATAM claims his ability stems from magical/technological golden rings (a nod to the ubiquitous collectibles in the games), which he collects and uses as last ditch bursts of supernormal speed. The Archie and UK comics subscribe to an experiment performed on Sonic by Dr. Robotnik himself back when he was mild mannered Julian Ovi Kintobor, the same experiment that went disastrously wrong and drove the good doctor into power-hungry madness. Interestingly although his speed is paramount to the reason for Sonic's role as a hero and his essential game play style, in the comics and series his aptitude became less important then his personality: reckless, roguish, but ultimately an early teenager at heart.
Although his adversary Dr. Robotnik (known in Japan as Eggman) is ever his nemesis the placement of Sonic's adventure is varied between adaptations. In the original game he was on South Island, a traveling continent with multiple disorderly climates and locations to provide Sonic and wide-ranging set of levels to traverse.
In Adventures the loosely described planet Mobius was declared to be Sonic's home world and some dim allusions were made to a historical war between Robotnik and the animals and people living there.
In SATAM the concept of Mobius was advanced in a far more developed direction that the UK and American comics embraced. Mobius was actually the Earth years in the future after an alien invasion had driven the humans to near extinction with biological weapons that had also mutated the surviving forms of animal life into anthropomorphic creatures called mobians. This made the contention between Robotnik and Sonic much more then just iconic hero and his obligatory villain. Robotnik as a human was enslaved for a time to the ruling mobian hierarchy, The Acorn Dynasty, and his rise to power was a long simmering plot behind enemy lines. This storyline idea led to a unique and promising concept for SATAM. Unlike a lot of Saturday morning cartoons Sonic wasn't at the head of an elite team of heroes and he wasn't defending a well-ordered kingdom from an enemy outside its walls. He was a child at the head of a resistance group of children with few resources and his world had already been essentially conquered. This kind of oppressive scenario put even the more cheerful or comedic moments of the show intro a starker prospective then a lot of Western children's animated entertainment which was the full intentions of the creators who voiced their ambition to make Sonic seem more like an animated more then a half-hour cartoon from the first.
Sonic X introduced a new idea tying together the essential elements of Sonic's game history, one more aimed towards a much younger audience at least in the beginning. Mobius is an alien planet and an accident involving one of Robotnik's schemes with the Chaos Emeralds leads to Sonic and his friends and enemies being deposited in modern day Japan. For a time they disguise themselves as stuffed animals in the care of Chris Thorndyke but eventually their actions in rescuing the city from Robotnik's plots earn them local celebrity.
The games haven't done much to go back into Sonic's history, instead piling on standalone ventures lacking continuity.
UNIFYING SONIC THEMES
Although the diverse roster of heroes and villains diverge and throughout his history Sonic has had many different exploits there are a number of similarities I believe can be brought together to define the perfect Sonic foundation.
-Sonic runs faster then normal living things and is very athletic.
-Sonic is fiercely brave and loyal.
-Sonic is boisterous, voracious and indolent if he can get away with it.
-Sonic is optimistic, cocksure, and enjoys taunting his foes and joshing his friends.
-Sonic has a constant companion in the benign twin-tailed fox Miles 'Tails' Prower.
-Sonic is always in contention with the villainous scientific genius Dr. Robotnik/Eggman.
-Sonic is usually trying to retrieve the powerful Chaos Emeralds before an enemy.
-There's some contention between natural animals and manmade industrial oppression.
-Sonic's homeland is usually called Mobius.
SUGGESTED SONIC STORY ADDITIONS
With a Sonic film there'd be some need to tie the threads of the past together at last, not just making pandering lip service but genuinely create a continuity fans can enjoy but newcomers can also understand. To that end here are my suggestions for what pieces to take from the previous Sonic adaptations if a film was to be made.
-Adopt the SATAM/Archie Comics continuity:
The UK Fleetway comics and the Japanese continuity on the whole are not very cinematic or consistent. Whereas both of these tried to stay firmly in Sonic's game roots and work from there (which they both did well in different ways) SATAM and Archie began with a completely different concept, which grounded Sonic in a way the others couldn't. With Mobius as future Earth suddenly Sonic's story is no longer a colorful alien but a science fiction story with some degree of realistic integrity. Despite his look Sonic could operate in a darker storyline with his animal nature explained as years of genetic mutation and evolution which somehow seems more plausible then just saying he's an alien from a planet of human/animal hybrids.
A lot of people will disagree with setting Sonic's cinematic debut in what amounts to a post-apocalyptic rebellion but to me that's the story that made me interested in Sonic as a character beyond just a colorful mascot in a video game indistinguishable from Aero the Acrobat except for his running mechanic.
Robotnik likewise should be a vengeance driven methodical warlord instead of a bumbling foil. Just keeping the Western name Robotnik is a step in the right direction for a Sonic film, away from the amusing but unimposing name Eggman.
SATAM/Archie also had the idea of characters that in the UK and Japanese storylines generally have little to do except backup Sonic actually having histories and individualities. The character of Sally Acorn in the official UK continuity is merely Sonic's jumping instructor, but in SATAM/Archie she's the heir to her father's occupied kingdom and one of Sonic's more consistent girlfriends.
-Adopt the Fleetway Attitude:
Even while the earliest Archie comics were still slapstick and puns, Fleetway was including ideas like a murderous double identity for Sonic in Super Sonic, characters with blood feuds, and managed the impossible by making Amy Rose a badass thanks to providing her a hand crossbow. Archie and SATAM I believe owe a lot of their later darker themes and deeper characterization to Fleetway's fearlessness to tread where Westerners rarely dared in entertainment ostensibly intended for children.
Fleetway's art style and the costumes of the characters echoed a punk aesthetic, making Sonic's quills resemble a Mohawk more and giving him and his cast stylish leathers and personalized t-shirts. Archie/SATAM tended to keep characters mostly unclothed, but by including these costumes Fleetway suggested that Sonic and friends were trying to individuate, grow up and distinguish themselves. The underground, rougher, punk attitude also worked perfectly with the idea of embattled teenage rebels.
Fleetway also featured the characters acting rather moodily in that they rapidly shifted from joy to sadness to anger which made them feel even more like humans in the guise of animals struggling with the same problems anyone would in adolescence. I liked how Sonic although a hero by necessity thanks to his skills wasn't initially very heroic. He was lazy, bitingly cynical, and got flustered quickly. Not uncommon for UK comics to feature a more complex, less cut-and-dried hero who had to start as a child and work his way into adulthood but for Western companies the idea of starting the hero in a less then idealized role still have yet to catch on. Even SATAM's lofty goals were stymied by the animation company imposing restrictions Fleetway just didn't have.
Sonic made his name initially as going places the straight-laced Mario wouldn't dare and flouting a devil-may-care outlook.
To revive he needs to recapture that I think.
-Adopt the Sonic X Scale
SATAM, Archie, and even Fleetway from the first had pretty confined storylines. Sonic was essentially trapped in a forest rebel camp so he didn't get to go very many places except on missions to the converted ruins of the city Mobotropolis where Robotnik held absolute reign.
Sonic X had no rebellion plot and although it's story didn't initially stray far from 'plot of the week' material, Sonic did travel a lot more then in the previous adaptation going on a cruise ship and playing baseball among other things. The prevailing sensibility was large-scale locations and interacting portions of a larger world.
For a Sonic movie the camp of Knothole and subjugated Mobotropolis should be preliminary settings but it should going beyond these to suggest that Sonic's story isn't he only one taking place. The war with Robotnik has implications for every living thing on Mobius and so it would be interesting to see Sonic travel to or at least hear about other places beset by his influence or just learning of the threat his mechanical empire poses. Sonic might even travel to a part of the world that isn't in the middle of conflict and enjoy a quiet moment of relaxation. Sonic isn't a fighter by nature in any adaptation so his traveling to another place might be due to looking for a momentary egress from battle as much as to find something important to his mission.
Also Sonic X had more human characters interacting with Sonic and viewing him with distrust or even admiration when he saved their lives or property. There were human characters in Archie and Fleetway but they tended to be bloodthirsty subhuman survivors, faceless military operatives, or young children. Sonic X suggested human run institutions that each had their own approach to Sonic and Robotnik. I'd like to see a Sonic film not only tackle Sonic's journey but also the relations between the animal mobians and humans with their own behavior and histories.
-Give Ample Credit to the Games
Without the Sonic games there would be no Sonic, but like Nolan's Batman trilogy I'd argue that the source material in total at least is not as important as making a good movie. Sonic has aspects to his character and story that are indispensable for the identity of the film to be known as a Sonic adaptation at all, but there's a lot of aspects of the game that simply aren't necessary. Rings are prominent in the games but they don't need to be shoehorned into the plot, much as a movie about Nathan Drake from Uncharted wouldn't have to feature him collecting tiny artifacts hidden in the scenery. Same with warp zones, loop-de-loops, and specific levels.
But there's a way to pay deference to the origin while not sacrificing the chance to update Sonic and make his film version evident from his gaming past.
No it's not referential jokes. To me this is a lethargic and irritating trend that neither pays homage nor helps the film they're in. Naming the car dealership Gug Needi's in the Max Payne movie isn't clever and it's infuriating when you think that a major character in the game has been reduced to a sight gag.
But something as simple as the currency of mobians being golden rings or a ruined concrete overpass curling into a loop-de-loop that Sonic can't help but run at full speed along would work out fine.
It's a suggestion that the game is actually being adapted, not just parodied.