2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog proved one of the most successful video game film adaptations ever, earning $146 million domestically. That would have been impressive enough on its own, but that number actually reflects a theatrical release cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, the film still ranked sixth at the weekend box office during the final frame before everything shut down.
The movie was based on the popular video game franchise that premiered in 1991, in which players control the lightning-fast title character on his missions to save the world. Ben Schwartz, best known for playing the flamboyant Jean-Ralphio on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” voiced Sonic. As the villain Dr. Robotnik, Jim Carrey marked his first live-action comedy role in six years, since 2014’s Dumb and Dumber To.
It also marked Jeff Fowler’s feature-length directorial debut; Fowler had previously earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short Film with Gopher Broke. Now he’s back helming Paramount’s Sonic the Hedgehog 2, releasing exclusively in cinemas on April 8. Fowler spoke to Boxoffice Pro about the production challenges associated with Carrey’s comically enormous mustache, hiding Easter eggs for the games’ eagle-eyed fans on a character’s iPhone screen, and why it’s important for audiences to see this title in a cinema.
The first Sonic movie came out in February 2020, right before the pandemic upended the domestic box office. This movie was conceived, and will be released, in a very different world. How much of a disruption was the Covid-19 pandemic on the production of this film?
The first film had come out. The studio was obviously really excited about how audiences had received it. There had already been some early discussion about doing another Sonic movie, so we were in the early stages of that. But we were kind of fortunate in having something to do when the world went remote, to be able to still be talking story with writers. Even though it’s better to get together and do that in person, that didn’t hold us back from having these great story sessions and talking about what would make for a great sequel.
Paramount made the decision to release [the first film] on digital earlier than planned, so [more] people could watch it. The spirit of the first Sonic movie was so positive and optimistic, which was a really great thing to have out there when people, especially in the early days, weren’t sure what to expect. Families were looking for things to do, stuff to take their minds off everything. Hopefully, Sonic was able to help with that.
And I hope this movie does the same! In some weird way, I hope these two Sonic movies kind of bookend people’s experiences with the pandemic. I read a lot of people online saying the first film was the last movie they’d seen in theaters. There were theaters out here in L.A. that still had the poster on the marquee for the entire shutdown. At the Grove, Sonic was plastered all over the exterior. It was surreal. We were very fortunate to have the theatrical run that we had and are hoping that everyone will be excited and comfortable going out in April.
A number of video game movie adaptations in recent years failed to crack $60 million at the domestic box office—Assassin’s Creed, Warcraft, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, 2018’s Tomb Raider. Yours made $146 million, and that was curtailed by the pandemic! Why do you think yours succeeded?
I think it all comes down to character. Not character design or the look of the character, but the heart of the character. What journey are they going on? How relatable is that to an audience? How emotionally connected can they become? That’s not a specific or unique challenge to video game translations, that’s all movies. All movies come down to character. How hard are you rooting for or against somebody? Then you’re invested for the whole two hours.
And honestly, just fun. Are the audience having a good time? Not to sound too simplistic about it, but that’s really the blueprint for these movies. You can see the actors are really enjoying it, they’re having fun with their characters. That really translates for the audience. They walk away having a great time and a great experience. That’s what makes for a successful movie.
Well, Jim Carrey was very clearly having fun. In this one, his mustache is literally about a foot longer than it was in the first film.
And he still has to grow it longer! It’s still in its early stages.
Did the mustache keep falling off when filming?
Ironically, the bigger it gets, the easier it is to stay on his face, because there’s lots of places you can put more glue on. The smaller mustache from the first film, just because it was simpler and thinner, that one we had way more issues with. This one is so big that you can just slather on the glue.
He’s obviously such an incredible actor. He works really hard, that’s the thing that’s so impressive about him. He just turned 60 last week. He just really cares about getting it right. With all the work he’s done over the years, the concern would be that he somehow is no longer so invested. But nothing could be further from the truth. He loves playing Dr. Robotnik. He’s always pitching ideas, trying to come up with funnier dialogue. It’s really inspiring to have him come to work. You see how much he cares, and it makes everyone else work hard to also do great work.
What’s your favorite example of a Jim Carrey improvisation or pitch that made it into the final cut?
From the first movie, when Agent Stone [played by Lee Majdoub] comes into the Wachowski house after Dr. Robotnik has gotten punched out by James Marsden’s character, [Robotnik] grabs Stone by the jaw, holds him forward, and does the whole scene with his hand in Lee’s mouth. We were all there and saw Jim get this little twinkle in his eye. He basically asked Lee, “Would it be OK if I put my hand in your mouth?” Of course, who is Lee to say anything other than, “Yeah, go for it!” When Jim Carrey asks to put his hand in your mouth, you don’t say no. So we did it four or five times, and each time was funnier than the last.
He has such a great eye for not only physical comedy, but for ways to “plus” the scene. And of course, dialogue. He can always come up with funnier ways of delivering a line. He really does care, really does work hard to make his scenes come to life.
What was the biggest challenge in making this film?
It’s just a big movie! It’s got a ton of visual effects. But that’s also the best part about it. I love what we were able to do with this, tell a big action-adventure story and bring in all these new characters like Knuckles and Tails. That’s what made it challenging but also the best thing ever, because we knew we wanted these characters coming into our movie universe, knowing that fans love these characters every bit as much as we do.
With that first film, we wanted to tell an origin story and keep it simple. We wanted to make it all about Sonic and Robotnik, setting them up. But now having the opportunity to expand the universe and bring in some of these other characters, it’s just awesome. Hopefully we get to just continue on that trajectory. There are so many characters in the Sonic universe to pull from. There’s so much more room for growth.
And when you’ve finally pulled in all the characters by Sonic the Hedgehog 17, do what Spider-Man: No Way Home did, and have Sonic open up a multiverse with other versions of himself.
I’m right there with you, man. [Laughs.]
Are there any Easter eggs that Sonic video game fans can look forward to in this film?
Yeah, all over the place. There are also these little things you can do, like put something on an iPhone screen. The time on the iPhone screen is 6:23, which is a reference to Sonic’s birthday, June 23. That’s about as granular as it gets! Why put something random on there when you can stash an Easter egg? There are lots of little places to stash them because you know fans are going to go back over the whole movie with a fine-tooth comb.
There are also big ones that are very obvious, like the Tornado, Tails’s biplane that Tails and Sonic fly into battle with, which is a direct and loving homage to the end of [1992’s] Sonic the Hedgehog 2 video game, when it delivers Sonic into battle. There’s all kinds of stuff, and a lot of it would be very “spoiler-y” for me to mention now. But I’ll throw it out there for all the fans, that there’s all kinds of stuff buried throughout.
I was looking up interviews from the first Sonic film in early 2020, and you mentioned that you had a newborn son, which would make him about two and a half now? Is he too young to watch this yet, or do you run any of it by him?
He’d pop his head in. He loves running in and seeing what I’m reviewing. He’s a big Knuckles fan. He likes the color red a lot, so Knuckles is neck-and-neck with Sonic right now in popularity. Someday, he’ll get to watch these movies and hopefully approve of how his dad has been spending all his time. Or at least he’ll lie to me and tell me that he loves them.
The first film gained goodwill from fans for its faithfulness to the original video games. Had you considered departing from the source material, or was that never even a possibility?
You’ve really got to honor what it is people love about the characters. The 30 years Sonic’s been around, the fan base he’s generated is incredible and enormous. The power of that fan base is obvious from the [success of the] first film, giving us a lot of great support. So you wantto take what people love about the character and translate it to the big screen. It’s very challenging and can be tricky. But at its core, you have to look at those key foundations of what makes the games and their characters so beloved. And how do you retain that spirit, even if you’re rearranging the pieces a little bit or tweaking the story a little bit?
Why is it important for audiences to see Sonic 2 in a cinema?
This is something you just have to see on a big screen. It’s such a big, fun adventure. It’s so much bigger than the first movie. There’s so much spectacle. I think people are going to really love it. It’s like a [roller-coaster] ride. All the action is bigger, all the set pieces are bigger. Really, I think it’s just perfect for audiences, getting together with your friends or your family and seeing a big movie on the biggest screen possible.
AT THE MOVIES WITH JEFF FOWLER
What is your all-time favorite moviegoing memory or experience?
Return of the Jedi. I was five when it came out, in ’83. Star Wars really shaped what I love about movies: constructing these incredible worlds and bringing visual effects into the storytelling medium. Of course, that’s something that’s become very important in my work. With something like Sonic the Hedgehog, you’re bringing a character to life through the talent of visual effects artists.
What’s your favorite snack at the movie theater concession stand?
I’m a Skittle man. Love me some Skittles.