Occasionally, movies that are hoped to be big hits only hit the middle distance if not outright flop. But the other side of the coin is when a movie that everyone expected to flop or be “meh” at most ends up doing far better than anyone anticipated. Current example, meet Sonic the Hedgehog.
Even just a few days before its release last week, most box office analysts had it tracking for a $45-50 million opening, a solid but uninspiring number for a 4-day weekend. Instead, it blew past that number to rack up $58 million domestically ($113 million worldwide) – not bad for a movie with an estimated production budget of $85 million. If we spend so much time figuring out why particular movies flopped, it’s only fair we analyze why movies do far better than expected, too.
Here are a few reasons Sonic the Hedgehog crushed it in its opening weekend.
1. Virtually No Competition On A Holiday Weekend
Normally, if a video game adaptation’s opening weekend and a comic book movie’s second weekend meet head-to-head, the audience from one will take some of the audience for the other, those two audiences often overlapping. However, this weekend was one of the rare cases where that didn’t happen as Sonic and Birds of Prey are about as different as you can get.
For starters, the PG-rated Sonic is far more family-friendly than previous video game adaptations. Save for Detective Pikachu, most video game adaptations in recent years have been rated PG-13 or R or at the very least leaned into a more adult storyline and aesthetic. But Sonic was kid-friendly and parents felt comfortable taking their kids to see it in a way that they might not have been with other video game adaptations. With Birds of Prey having an R-rating, Sonic didn’t have to worry about any of the usual comic book movie siphoning as there was little audience crossover as there would have been with, say, a Marvel movie.
Don’t discount the power of a holiday weekend, either. There’s no better way to entertain kids for a few hours when they have a day off school than taking them to a movie that caters to them, and it seems Sonic benefited from that.
2. The Redesign
Some of you blessed people might not remember the dark days of May 2019 when the first trailer was released and the full Sonic design was unveiled. And it was…okay, I’m not going to lie, it was kinda pure nightmare fuel:
The human teeth and eyes and ropy physique on what was otherwise a cute CGI video game character hit the internet with a wave of uncanny valley action, the general consensus running from “Weird. NOPE!” to “Kill it with fire!” But after the backlash, director Jeff Fowler took to Twitter to announce that Paramount and SEGA had heard fans loud and clear and were committed to changing the design. The movie got pushed back three months and Japanese VFX house Marza Animation Planet was brought in to overhaul his design (for those wondering if it destroyed the initial budget, it only added about another $5 million), bringing Sonic back to his video game roots and the design that fans know and love: A stockier body with more cartoon-like proportions, oversized eyes, and teeth that were less disturbingly human-looking.
Whether or not the poor VFX artists working overtime and underpaid was worth it is another story, but there’s no doubt it was better for the movie itself. Granted, young kids aren’t generally turned off by much, design-wise. They don’t notice wonky CG and they won’t refuse to see a movie because Sonic has human eyes – but we could argue they were more likely to be interested in seeing it once Sonic got his big, cartoon eyes and kid-friendly visage. Teenagers certainly can be turned off by creepy design, however, and so can parents who aren’t thrilled about taking their kids to see something they themselves are turned off by. Normally, studios listening to fans’ backlash is ripe for disaster and bad storytelling but in this case, Paramount was wise to listen and adjust accordingly.
3. A Vintage Jim Carrey Role
It’s been an incredibly long time since we’ve seen Jim Carrey in what people in their 30s & 40s – the exact age that now has kids old enough to take to the movies – consider a “classic” Jim Carrey sort of role: zany, over-the-top, motormouthed delivery with exaggerated physicality. You could say that we last saw it in 2014 with Dumb and Dumber To, but dumb humor isn’t really something that most modern audiences cotton to now. There were some shades of it in 2013’s Kick-Ass 2, as well. But if we’re really talking the vintage, peak Jim Carrey era that most people think of, that was the ’90s, when he knocked out Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, Batman Forever, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, and even Liar Liar in a single decade, cementing himself as the finest physical comedian of our age. It’s been a long, long time since we’ve seen that Jim Carrey, but the unhinged character of Dr. Robotnik could slot nicely in between any of those movies (and was one of the highlights of my review).
A generation that grew up on that manic, bonkers version of Jim Carrey had the chance this weekend to once again see him in that mode and thus fulfill their own nostalgia (or curiosity to see if Carrey’s still got it), and to introduce their own kids to an actor that they grew up loving, the same reason their kids will now grow up loving Dr. Robotnik. Don’t discount the power of an actor and comedian who understands how to get kids to laugh without dumbing down the act or pandering to them. I can guarantee kids didn’t understand half the words that came out of Robotnik’s mouth. But it doesn’t matter. Kids got to see a master comedian at work, and it was something they could share with their parents reliving their own childhoods.
4. It’s Just A Really Good Movie
Let’s get one thing straight: Even if a movie doesn’t have much competition in front of it or opens on a holiday weekend, if it’s a bad movie it’s not going to exceed expectations as Sonic did. But Sonic is honestly a good movie – some might even say great. It managed to find the balance that most video game adaptations to date have not yet found. The challenge of them is that, unlike adaptations of novels or comic books, there is no core story as the player creates the narrative as they play through the game. Sonic, however, threaded the needle of remaining true to the source material while not being so slavish to it that it forced a narrative that doesn’t work in a movie format or alienates people not familiar with the video games.
That balance was threaded through a story that was surprisingly solid. There’s plenty of heart and, sure, there are moments that get a bit sappy, but it hits all the right emotional buttons. The humor is layered, with sight gags and silly comedy catering to kids but enough deadpan and observational humor (and, of course, the aforementioned Jim Carrey) to keep adults entertained. Positive word of mouth is always so much more important to a movie’s success than most realize, and I imagine people returning from screenings with exclamations of “It’s actually really good!” urged plenty of others who previously had no plans to see it out to the theaters this weekend.
Sonic the Hedgehog is currently in theaters. You can add to its surprising total by getting tickets here.