“SONIC THE HEDGEHOG 2” AND “AMBULANCE”

“SONIC THE HEDGEHOG 2”
Starring Ben Schwartz, Jim Carrey, Colleen O’Shaughnessy, James Marsden, Idris Elba, Tika Sumpter, Donna Jay Fulks, Natasha Rothwell, Adam Pally, Shemar Moore, Lee Majdoub, Tom Butler, Elfina Luk, Melody Nosipho Niemann
Screenplay by Pat Casey, Josh Miller and John Whittington
Story by Pat Casey and Josh Miller
Based on the Sega video game “Sonic the Hedgehog”
Directed by Jeff Fowler
Produced by Neal H. Moritz, Toby Ascher, Tori Nakahara and Hiroshi Okuno
Cinematography by Bradon Trost
Edited by Jim May
Music by Tom Holkenburg

One of the more pleasant, positive, goofy and charming–and unexpected–surprise hit movies from the last few years was the wholly goofy and silly “Sonic the Hedgehog” from early 2020, a combination live action and cartoon family film that somehow succeeded despite a cargo ship’s worth of cliches, inconsistencies, inanity and questionable plot points. But a whole lot of charm, positivity, good-natured humor, inside jokes, lovable characters, well-crafted special effects and positive messages and morals can, in the right circumstances, go a long way.

Thus, “Sonic the Hedgehog” was a good, if not exactly great, family movie and a most deservedly huge hit–popularly, critically and at the box office. And, interestingly, the movie, which was released in February, 2020, was one of the last big popular hits at real, live movie theaters just before the Covid-19 virus pandemic struck and promptly shut down everything in March, 2020. If you were wondering why you were seeing “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie posters outside movie theaters for a very long time in 2020, that’s why.

And now, equally interesting, it’s two years later, the pandemic numbers are going down, mask mandates are being dropped, other restrictions are being dropped, and popular entertainment venues, sports venues and movie theaters are re-opening–fortunately, not a moment too soon and thank goodness for everyone–and here we have the release of “Sonic the Hedgehog 2.” Timing is everything, and man, how timing has worked for these two “Sonic” movies.

And, also fortunately, it’s a pleasure once again to report that “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” somehow maintains the same general goofiness, silliness, humor, charm, positivity, well-executed combination of live action and cartoon animation, cargo ship’s load of special affects–even more this time–as the first film. Thus, “Sonic 2,” like it’s predecessor, still somehow manages to succeed as a good, recommended family film despite the same level of cliches, inconsistencies, corny dialogue and, at times, over-reliance on those big-budget special effects.

For beleaguered, exhausted parents and grandparents looking for a decent, good family film to take the kids to in a real, live movie theater, “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” provides a good time. And, like any modern-day animated film, “Sonic 2” throws in a bunch of funny in-joke, nod-nod-wink-wink, satirical pop culture jokes for the adults to enjoy. And everyone will benefit from the recurring, but welcome, positive, upbeat and encouraging messages, morals and themes about the importance of family, friends, teamwork, taking responsibility for heroic actions and good winning over evil. It’s hard to argue with a silly, funny movie that also manages to impart positive messages that aren’t complicated, wayward or unnecessarily angst- and gloom-and-doom-filled–like far too many ridiculously angst-burdened and doom-and-gloom-enveloped recent movies.

One of the main charms of the “Sonic” movies is the lead character himself, an irresistibly cute little kid-aged blue hedgehog creature that talks, walks, functions mostly like a human and, for the sake of these movies’ existence as something more than just another animated family film, has some supernatural superhero super-powers, including stupendous Superman-style strength and startling supersonic speed. But there’s something else notable about Sonic–he’s continually, impressively positive, he wants only to do good, he’s very much like any other human kid, and he has a sense of humor. Again–all positive character traits that make it very easy for audiences to like, and part of the huge reason for the success of the “Sonic” movies: When you present such a lovable, relatable, cute and funny lead character who you actually like and care about and want to cheer on, well, you’re already on the way to creating a strong, positive bond and connection with your audience.

Add in the aforementioned large quantities of silliness, goofiness, positivity, good messages, optimism, special effects, jokes, gags and humor, and, well, you’re very close to completion.

As for the required remaining filmic parts–well, one can’t really say that “Sonic 2’s” script, story, dialogue, characters, characterizations, plot points, subplots or acting really rise above average, because they don’t. The story, script and dialogue is cliched, corny, trite and even somewhat tired, but, again, this is a family film, a cartoon based on a video game, and a movie constantly buffered and protected and smothered in that irresistible humor, positivity, cuteness and charm, and director Jeff Fowler and scriptwriters Pat Casey, Josh Miller and John Whittington somehow find a way for the movie’s charms to outweigh and overpower its cliches and inconsistencies and make the dern movie work.

Several lead actors stand out, but there are some slight problems lurking among the supporting cast, several of whom don’t quite have the required comedic chops and skills to stand out as one should in such a movie. This is a common occurrence, for some reason, in big-budget animated movies–obviously-non-comedic actors with limited comedic skills are often cast in roles that, well, require some comedic skills. Yes, yes, many if these actors with limited comedy skills and experience are obviously cast for their marquee name recognition–but that tactic often ends up as a failed move that just ends up hurting the movie. The best solution for producers, directors and casting agents for these big-budget animated movies is to forget the big names and just hire people who are actually funny, who can play funny and who are—funny.

One quick example of superb casting in animated movies (besides Robin Williams in anything animated, which is obvious great casting): Don Rickles and Estelle Harris as Mr. And Mrs. Potato Head. Brilliance, sheer brilliance. And a fond farewell to the talented Ms. Harris, who recently died at 93. Fortunately, she lives on in animation with her hilarious characterizations and acting.

In “Sonic 2,” fortunately, three of the four main actors are genuinely funny. The very talented Ben Schwartz returns again to voice and act as Sonic, and it’s really Schwartz’s acting that carries the movie–just as he did in the first film, too. And, it should be noted, Sonic is animated. So Schwartz carries two movies based on his superb voice acting. That’s an achievement that, really, few actors can really pull off consistently.

Assisting Schwartz at the same high level is actor Colleen O’Shaughnessy, who wonderfully voices new, and newly-welcome, character Tails, an animated yellow fox who is a devoted and dedicated fan and follower of Sonic who tracks down Sonic literally through space and time to meet and assist and work with his hero. O’Shaughnessy wonderfully makes Tails as cute, charming, lovable, funny and positive as Sonic. So now there’s two furry animated lovable characters fighting evil to save the world. How can you go wrong?

The third outstanding spoke of talent carrying “Sonic 2” is none other than the still-great, still-physical, stlll-goofy, still over-acting and, thankfully, still-funny Jim Carrey. Carrey is simply hilariously and appropriately over-the-top–in only the many ways that Jim Carrey can be over-the-top without sinking a movie or bringing everything down around him–as the movie’s live-action, mustacheod, old-timey-styled evil villain Dr. Robotnik, who, of course, is a mad scientist and technological genius who is hellbent on taking over the world, dominating everyone and everything and destroying his main enemy, Sonic the Hedgehog. Watching Carrey delight, goof, joke, move, bend, grimace, scheme, dance and just plain lose himself, or part of himself, at least, as the live-action, but still cartoonist, Dr. Robotnik is just a wonder and a pleasure. Carrey, of course, is perfectly cast in this movie, as he was in the first film, and it’s just a delight to watch Carrey work his comedy magic here.

Carrey, for some odd reason, recently suggested that he might retire soon from acting. Say what, Carrey? That’s madness, we all say collectively, just madness–as mad and crazy as your Dr. Robotnik. If you’re still showing your original-style, goofball, Looney Tunes-style of humor, still helping to carry big-budget family films and simply still making people laugh–those misguided retirement ruminations can definitely wait a while longer.

While Schwartz, O’Shaughnessy and Carrey carry the movie with their natural comedic abilities–timing, pacing, voicing, emoting where and when appropriate, picking up in cues and maintaining a required comedic tone, edge, chemistry and awareness–the actors in various supporting roles don’t quite succeed at the same level. Idris Elba–nor really generally known as a comedic actor–is miscast as Knuckles, a villainous animated red echidna, which is also known as a spiny anteater. James Marsden and Tika Sumpter aren’t given much to do as Sonic’s human, live-action caretakers, and several other supporting cast members seem, at times, to be out of place.

The story is cliched and often doesn’t make sense, even in a fantasy science fiction superhero video game half-animated context, and the dialogue, while often funny with the aforementioned jokes, also often appears stilted, trite and unfunny at times. However, Fowler, the director, keeps things moving so fast and furious, as if he’s trying to match Sonic’s super speed, that viewers will somewhat forgive the story’s and script’s shortcomings. And those special effects–which appear to consume and dominate most of the movie’s estimated $90 million budget, as with most of the superhero fantasy sci-fi movies from the last twenty-five years–can alternately dazzle and impress as much as bring down and overwhelm. A climactic battle royale near the end of the third act, which is overwhelmed by those special effects, goes on way too long and needed to be cut by a literal five full minutes.

The story, such that it is, involves Robotnik breaking free from his otherworldly exile from the end of the first movie, teaming up with Knuckles and battling against Sonic and Tails as everyone races to possess some magical green emerald that could determine who ends up controlling the world and the universe. There’s secret maps, powerful charms, mystical guidance from mystical creatures, flying and buzzing drone robots, secret chambers and lairs and about one-thousand other wildly-apparent stolen cliches from at least one-thousand other cliched movies, including, noticably and shamelessly, the “Avengers,” “Goonies,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Indiana Jones” movies. But, of course, astute film students, we all know or should know that all of those big hit movies knowingly and equally shamelessly stole from a thousand other movies before them, of course, so everyone in moviedom shares equal credit in robbing, borrowing and stealing similar fantasy and sci-fi story elements from everyone else. All’s fair in movie love and movie war.

Yet, as noted, despite its shortcomings, “Sonic the Hedgehog 2,” like it’s predecessor, somehow finds a way to succeed, to burrow its furry, funny and friendly way into our hearts, and, once again at just the right time during some horrendously depressing and unsettled years, to claim a good reason to head out to a real movie theater, sit among real people, and lose yourself in some genuinely enjoyable silly and goofy movie entertainment.

“AMBULANCE”
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Yaya Abdul-Mateen II, Eliza Gonzalez
Written by Chris Fedak
Based on the 2005 movie “Ambulance” by Laurits Munch and Lars Andreas Petersen
Directed by Michael Bay
Produced by Michael Bay, Bradley J. Fischer, James Vanderbilt, William Sherak and Ian Bryce

“Ambulance,” the new laughable car wreck disaster of a movie from the increasingly wayward Michael Bay, cinema’s co-leading schlockmeister, along with Roland Emerich, is one of those terrible awful horrible Z-movies that raise more questions than the movie’s existence answers, most prominently among those many questions: Why was this movie made? And: What on earth, or any other planet, is up with Michael Bay?

“Ambulance” shockingly–or, considering it’s director, perhaps not shockingly–fails spectacularly at every filmic level–production, directing, writing and acting. The production as a whole looks, feels, sounds, plays and delivers cheap, schlocky, corny, tacky, offensive, dumb, moronic and idiotic. The movie is so bad, even Roger Corman and Ken Russell would have turned it down. Bay’s frenetic, frenzied, chaotic, cluttered, noisy, overly-edited and confusing direction is so insane, so clunky, its a wonder the editors, cameramen, grips, gaffers and crew didn’t go on strike to demand more high-quality working conditions. The script and story don’t make any sense, even in the context of the action adventure, chase, heist and cops-and-robbers genres, and are so moronically written, it’s a wonder that most of the dialogue even remained in the movie. And the acting is so cliched, over-the-top, over-acted and over-pumped full of pseudo macho bravado, ego, violence, confrontation, arguing, fighting and bickering, it’s just embarrassing, and that’s a fault, perhaps, of Bay and not so much the actors.

Nevertheless, “Ambulance” is just yet another over-done, over-directed, over-edited, overwrought and over-everything exercise in cinematic bombast and loudness from Bay, who can’t seem to get himself away from these terrible ideas and movies and who can’t seem to understand or realize that he’s become a running zeitgeist joke–exactly for producing and directing awful movies like “Ambulance.”

If a Hollywood producer and director is operating in a gilded, protected and shut-off celluloid bubble world to the point where he or she can’t or won’t listen to what people are constantly negatively saying and complaining about him–if you just don’t know what’s going on–then it’s time to step back, relax, take some deep breaths–and take a good, long rest for a while. And all of those money-hungry yes-men feeding that un-reality need to take a break, too. Really.

This isn’t being too harsh. Bay is constantly criticized, ridiculed, insulted, put down, complained about and even laughed at in popular culture and in the film community. He and his films are negatively criticized on a regular basis. Some folks in Hollywood despise him and his movies, for many reasons. Yet, blindly, he keeps churning out below-average, substandard dreck. Like “Ambulance.” And even his biggest hits, like “Armageddon,” “Transformers” and “Pearl Harbor,” have an odd, sad emptiness and soul-deflating nature in them, despite their significant box office success.

The many problems with “Ambulance” start within the movie’s first few minutes. A military veteran with a sick wife and a baby needs $230,000 for what’s vaguely described as “experimental surgery.” So what does he do, instead of making an appointment with the local Veterans Administration office, or a local Social Services office, or with a city, county, state or federal official, or a Health Department official? He goes to his criminal brother for a loan and then ends up joining his brother in a stupidly-planned, dumbly-brazen daylight robbery of a large bank right in the middle of downtown Los Angeles–a robbery seemingly so idiotically and stupidly planned and executed, none of it makes any sense.

Then, somehow, unbelievably, the brothers end up in an ambulance with a cop that the war vet crazily and stupidly accidentally shot in the chest, and with an emergency medical technician who is so cold, steely and unlikeable, the viewer can’t understand why on earth she’s working as an EMT. All of them then end up careening through the streets of Los Angeles in the ambulance–chased, if you can believe this–by dozens of police cars, motorcycles and helicopters who won’t or can’t just simply stop them–because the crazy criminal brother threatens to–what? Shoot his bother? Shoot the wounded, dying cop? Shoot the cold-blooded EMT? Shoot himself? Again, it just doesn’t make any sane sense.

Meanwhile, well, there is no meanwhile. The entirety of this moronic movie is just, well, if you can still believe it, cars, motorcycles and helicopters, well, chasing an ambulance with two heavily-armed bank robbers, a sullen, cold-blooded EMT and a wounded, dying cop. That’s it–just one long, very long, chase of three horribly unlikable people by horribly equally-unlikeable public safety officials, all of whom should turn in their respective badges once that ambulance runs out of gas.

The only character in this entire convoluted mess of nonsense that viewers will and should care about is, of course, the wounded cop. But common sense caring for one wounded character–who, by the way, barely speaks for most of the movie–cannot, will not and does not carry this movie.

Bay’s patented, much-maligned and expected non-style of over-directing with a constant barrage of too-tight close-ups, overly-edited shots, an overly-frenetic pace, zero sense of timing and pacing, too-chaotic editing, noise, gunshots, explosions–did you really think that a Michael Bay movie would NOT include explosions–fist fights, dumb criminals, pseudo-macho characters and a complete lack of any sense or sensibility ends up delivering a movie so loud, clunky and noisy, it’s just one long irritation and aggravation.

And for some bizarro reason, Bay includes an impromptu internal organ surgery scene in the ambulance that is so gross, so gruesome–and so laughably unnecessary in its graphic goriness–the scene ends up existing only to add to the already long list of excessiveness already on display.

As if the story isn’t ridiculous enough, the script has literally ever character–even the wounded cop–saddled with cliched, trite and tired dialogue that is as unbelievable as everything else going on. Every character talks in some weird, strange, over-exaggerated pseudo-macho manner as if he or she hates everyone and everything in the world. The script and dialogue never connect on any level.

The acting is on the same below-average level–seriously, the actors truly appear to be acting so every one of them is unlikeable or moronic in some way. That’s fine if you’re a criminal character, but everyone, good and bad, acts this way, which, again, makes no sense.

And Bay even over-uses a relatively new filmic camera tool, the drone. A filmic drone, which is really a remote-control small flying device with a small camera attached to it, has been utilized with increasing frequency by filmmakers during the 2000s because of the devices’ relative ease to use, ability to get swooping and swishing aerial shots, and because those small devices can often be used in place of more expensive and larger cranes, cherry-pickers, small planes and helicopters.

But leave it to Bay to somehow over-use this device, as he repeatedly shows us the same drone shots over and over–for no real reason other than, well, to show off a bunch of nauseatingly swooshing and sweeping drone shots. It’s like someone showing off his new toy! Look, see what I can do with my new drone! Thus, the drone shots don’t work. An early, elementary, basic rule of filmmaking is to not let the camera work and camera shots over-power and distract from the scene. Camera shots should be naturally and smoothly integrated into and with the scene, so the visuals, the lighting, the camera shots, the action and the actors all integrate together to provide the requisite storytelling, narrative, mood and atmosphere.

Of course, Bay doesn’t seem to care about any of this. He just wants to careen and cruise and crash along on a filmic road to nowhere.

And that’s just what “Ambulance” does and ends up doing–the movie, like the ambulance of the title, is on that endless road to nowhere, on a highway to hell. And “Ambulance” sadly arrives dead on arrival.

–30–
###