'Sonic' and the Costs of Fan Anger

Sonic The Hedgehog Still 7 - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy Paramount Pictures and Sega of America
Paramount's decision to redesign the character paid off, but how much say should audiences have on the creative process?

Sonic the Hedgehog is currently racing through theaters, but his road to get there wasn’t without a few speed bumps.

In fact, there was a time when we could have been watching a very different looking Sonic run across our screens. While one day it will all be a piece of movie trivia, there are few now who can forget the first trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog and the controversy that ensued. It was the spring of 2019 and the internet was still abuzz over the adorableness of Detective Pikachu. Then came the Sonic trailer. There had been rumors, of course, reactions from cinema conventions, silhouettes of theater standees and leaked images that some swore, even prayed were fan-made. But it was all real, and to see it in motion was something else. The first trailer for Sonic wasn’t just a trip to the uncanny valley, it took us all the way down into the uncanny cavern. The response from fans and non-fans alike was immediate, and loud, and Paramount, fearing its would-be franchise would be dead before arrival, pushed the release date and had the VFX team redesign Sonic with an appearance far closer to that of the Sega games. That’s the power of the internet, the power of fandom. But where do we draw the line between artistic vision and fan approval? And what’s the cost of either side winning?

The case of Sonic seems relatively clear cut, and with all due respect to the VFX artists involved, the comparison between the original, gangly legged Sonic with a mouth full of human teeth and the current version reveals a clear winner. The intention behind the original design isn’t lost on us. That model does look less cartoony and more akin to something biological, and able to believably appear alongside human actors. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a good-looking design or that there isn’t something eerie about it. Still, good decision or not, it was the decision of director Jeff Fowler, and if we’re going to fight for creative freedom in studio movies then maybe we have to fight for the ugly bits, too.

There’s certainly a case to be made for that side of the coin, and having seen the film, wherever Fowler went wrong with that original design, which may have worked better as concept art than as an animated entity, he certainly got it right with the other aspects of the pic. The movie is a good family film with a lot of heart, strong performances and innovative action sequences, something that would have remained true regardless of how Sonic looked. But there’s a chance that a significant amount of the audience who will show up this weekend would not have shown up had the original design been kept.

When it comes to an IP, one that already has limited, niche appeal, like video game adaptations, that the studio hopes to broaden, there’s something to be said for winning fan approval. There are plenty of properties that can use, even thrive on, significant changes, regardless of initial opinion from fandom. Take Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, or even the less critically acclaimed but financially viable Transformers series, at least in its earlier days, for example. For all the complaints about the “grounded” nature of Nolan’s Batman world and initial skepticism over Heath Ledger’s casting as the Joker, these elements not only won over fans and non-fans alike but became accepted foundations within the medium and mythology of Batman. And while Bay’s Transformers didn’t resemble the G1 models of the action figures and cartoons that many had grown up with, they still found their own global fan base and hooked a new generation who hadn’t been there for their global rise to popularity in the '80s. When 2018's Bumblebee attempted to revitalize the property and utilized the G1 models, the film didn’t find the audience it deserved, showing that sometimes giving the fans what they want doesn’t mean they will show up. This is always the gamble with giving into fan service in a climate where the number of online voices doesn’t equate to the number of ticket sales.

With long-running series and properties that have been adapted numerous times, it’s a lot easier to take gambles and tick off the fan base. Sometimes it pays off, like the casting of Daniel Craig as a blond James Bond, a controversy that seems absurd nearly 20 years later. Sometimes it doesn’t, like the five attempts across film and television to follow James Cameron’s T2: Judgement Day (1991). And sometimes we’re left in a never-ending war of arguments for and against; such is the case with Zack Snyder's Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).

Personally, I think taking gambles with these properties is something worth fighting for. After all, there’s no artistic reward in doing what’s already been done and in simply making films for immediate adoration. The notion of making a movie simply to appeal to a fan base is an empty win, and ultimately feels pointless because fandom is such an incredibly fickle and nebulous thing.

Fan demands are not without their repercussions, either. Franchises and careers have lived and died according to the word of mouth of fans, sometimes fairly and sometimes not.

It feels impossible to talk about Sonic the Hedgehog without commenting on the fact that the visual effects company, Moving Picture Company, that did much of the VFX work for the Sonic currently seen in theaters shut down its Vancouver office in December, leaving many artists who worked on the redesign unemployed.

It's unknown if the closure was related to Sonic, or the result of other circumstances. Still, VFX artists are often blamed for decisions and design choices that were not on them, and after the Cats segment during last Sunday’s Oscars, a number of those artists are starting to push back against being used as scapegoats.

The changes made to Sonic resulted in what is a more visually appealing movie, and there are many VFX artists we can thank for that. But it’s dangerous to think of the fan reception to the original design and the studio’s quick response to change that design as something that should be normalized. Sonic feels like a special case, and perhaps a lesson to filmmakers looking to expand the audience of niche properties. But we shouldn’t expect studios to be held hostage by fans, and for them to cater to our demands, because ultimately filmmaking isn’t a medium that can rely on a quick patch or a democratic conversation between developers and fans, like video games. When we go to the movies, we take the risk of seeing something that may not fit within our expectations as fans, and we may leave surprised or disappointed, but ultimately that’s what makes the game worth playing.