Sonic the Hedgehog 2 has crossed a new milestone for video game adaptations in Hollywood. Its 71 million domestic opening weekend not only surpassed Paramount’s original estimates, but this is in fact the highest box office debut for a video game movie ever in the country. With a solid A CinemaScore grade and a current whopping audience approval rating of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, this massive success comes as no surprise. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is at the forefront of a new possible era for video games films, leaving old habits behind in favor of adopting more of the vibrant and unique aspects of the source material, thus giving hordes of fans a stronger incentive to show up in theaters. This has been director Jeff Fowler’s mission statement for Sonic in live-action ever since he made the huge decision to go back and change the character’s controversial design for the first film in 2019, but now with the sequel, he’s taken this goal to a new level (literally).
Jeff Fowler’s history with Sonic goes much further back than his two live-action films. Fowler previously worked on some high-profile Sonic games in the mid-2000s at Blur, the visual effects and animation studio founded by Deadpool director Tim Miller. This is how he would land the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring Sonic to the big screen. From his time at Blur, he got to introduce fans to many new aspects of the Sonic lore, and he’s doing the same now on film by bringing Knuckles and Tails into the fold. We were lucky enough to sit down with Jeff Fowler to dive into his personal history with the franchise and find out how he crafted the ideal video game adaptation in Sonic the Hedgehog 2. He, of course, also gives us a tease at what fans can expect from the beloved characters in live-action next, including the already announced Knuckles spin-off series on Paramount+.
So as we know, the Sonic fandom is quite opinionated. But I’m curious if you have any Sonic hot takes that you would like to share, maybe if you have a soft spot for certain games over others?
Jeff Fowler: Gosh, you know, it’s funny because I’m not sure how many people are aware of some of the work I did at an anime studio called Blur for many years. We actually had quite a bit of history with Sonic going all the way back to the Shadow the Hedgehog game [from 2005], which I worked on and did some cinematics for, and then also the very controversial 2006 game, which we also had done the cinematics for. So it’s just funny because Blur is very well known in video game circles, but in film circles not so much. But anyways, Sonic has always been there throughout my whole career and it’s just so exciting now to be able to be doing the films. It’s been great just being part of the history of [Sonic] in more ways than I think some of the fans realize.
I previously asked this next question to Ruben Fleisher, the director of Uncharted, since studios have been taking more chances on video game adaptations. Now, both of your Sonic films have been praised as some of the best of the bunch, but why do you think video game films have gotten such a bad rap so far?
Jeff Fowler: Well, I think the most important aspect of getting any film right – not even specific to video games – it’s really just the characters. Can you make an audience fall in love or be engaged by the characters? I guess the danger when adapting something like a video game is that you might just have a checklist of all the stuff that you think fans are going to want to see. And if it’s only that, if it’s only the kind of Easter eggs and all that checklist stuff, maybe there’s a chance that you might not put enough time into the characters and making sure that the audience is engaged early into it.
So with our first film, even though we certainly pushed everywhere we could to include Easter eggs and the type of stuff that fans would really love to see, it was just so important to get the characters right and to really make you go on the journey with Sonic to understand him emotionally to then be rooting for him. And I think audiences really responded, [Sonic the Hedgehog] really had a lot of heart and people really connected to the character emotionally. Now that’s allowed us to do something like the sequel, which is just a much bigger film – it has much more of the splashy, big action that people would expect from a Sonic movie.
Jumping off what you just said, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is the latest film to lead this new wave of adaptations that are embracing more of the colorful and animated aspects of video games, all things that Hollywood definitely used to shy away from. Do you see a stronger future for video game films?
Jeff Fowler: We’ll see! There’s no shortage of games that have become so sophisticated. Obviously, on all the new consoles, visually, the graphics are so engaging and so detailed, and the stories then have to become better too. Because if it looks great, but you don’t really care about the characters or what you’re doing in the game, then what’s the point in having all of this sort of high-end processing to make it look so good? So that puts the pressure on the writing and the stories, and I think that’s great. It makes better stuff come out of that process. So yeah, there should always be a very serious look taken at the video game landscape and just see what stories might make for great movies.
You’re kind of already touching on this, but when making something like Sonic, how do you toe the fine line of fan service vs. telling your own story?
Jeff Fowler: It’s just balancing. Again, going back to characters, it’s like, “Okay, we’re bringing in Knuckles. We’re bringing in Tails. How do we really make these characters fully realized and three-dimensional?” To honor everything fans love about them from the games but make them film characters, give them arcs, give them all backstories and all enough details so that even if you’re uninitiated – if you’re an audience member who has no idea, you’re meeting these characters for the first time – you’re still invested in them and really rooting for them.
Were you checking off a list of things that you personally wanted to see next? We now get to see Tails’ bi-plane and even the Death Egg Robot, so how do you decide what makes it in from the games?
Jeff Fowler: Oh, for sure. A great example is the Labyrinth Zone, which is from Sonic one. It just would not have been a great fit for a road trip movie in [Sonic the Hedgehog], it would be hard to write that into that story. So now that we are doing our bigger action-adventure in the sequel, suddenly, that’s totally on the table. That’s a great iconic visual from the games. It was something that was just like, “Man, you know, I love that visual.” It’s so appropriate for a big race to get the Master Emerald, so we’re always going in cherry-picking visuals from the 30 years of the games. Anything that feels like it’s going to give the movie great visual storytelling.
Speaking of Knuckles, he’s taken a new life on his own ever since he was first revealed with Idris Elba’s voice. Did you think that casting Idris would take the character as far as now getting his own spin-off series on Paramount+?
Jeff Fowler: Every scene that we were storyboarding and animating with him, I mean, it was just so great. From that first confrontation in the backyard, and the idea of Knuckles coming into our movie universe and kicking Sonic’s butt all over the place, it just felt right. Sonic defeated Robotnik at the end of the first film but now here comes knuckles, and he’s way more than Sonic can handle – it’s the right way to test your hero before they go off on the adventure, just really challenging them in new ways.
It was just so cool to design action where you have another super-powered character like Knuckles. We obviously have a lot of fun with Robotnik and all his drones, but having another character with powers like Knuckles just allowed us to do something very different and design the fight choreography in a way that was so much more faithful to the games, and yet go even bigger.
I don’t think anyone saw the Knuckles series announcement coming, do you have any idea of what that’s going to look like yet?
Jeff Fowler: Oh, it’s very early with all of that [the Knuckles series]. One thing I knew after we finished the film, people are going to love this character. They’re going to love Idris playing this character and they’re going to want more of Knuckles absolutely. So right now, all the focus is just on getting people excited and getting them out to see the sequel. Then, we’ll go from there. He’s such a wonderful character that there are so many different ways that you can go [in the series] that fans could really get excited by, so that will hopefully all come along very soon. But for now, I’m just so excited to get people to see the sequel.
Since Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is more of an epic adventure akin to the games, what were some of the challenges you were personally setting for yourself as a director from the start – whether it be with the characters or action?
Jeff Fowler: One was definitely to bring in some of the more iconic visuals; bringing in the tornado, Tails’ bi-plane, and the Death Egg Robot, really setting the stakes and just making it a much bigger movie. Again, we weren’t able to do these things for a variety of reasons on the first film, and some people were really wanting to see that. So feeling like there was a way to level everything up, and I think that was what we really challenged ourselves with that people are also now responding to – really leaning into all the iconic action, art direction, and all this stuff from the games that I feel like fans would just be really excited to see.
Bringing up the visuals specifically, what was your thought process when it came to designing Knuckles and Tails, because even Tails looks slightly different from his first post-credit scene appearance. Why change it?
Jeff Fowler: It was to make it all cohesive and to make these three characters look really great together. Once we had Sonic sort of worked out in the first film, that was just as a great blueprint then to create the other characters. And yeah, there were some little adjustments made to Tails. For the purposes of that tease at the end of the first film, Tails was created very quickly, knowing that he was only going to be in a few shots. But, you know, we wanted to really make fans happy with what they were seeing, getting their first glimpse of our movie Tails.
In the time between that and when we started the sequel, we went back in and made some little tweaks here and there. Obviously, we knew we wanted him to be a gadget guy and have lots of fun gizmos as well. He needs something to be carrying all that stuff around, so we loved the idea of giving him a little backpack and obviously his little data device. So little adjustments like that, it just comes from story. What are the needs of the story? And then making all those design choices based on that.
So last question, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 obviously sets up something huge for a third film, and fans are going to be excited. But what are the odds of colorful characters like Big the Cat or Amy appearing in live-action down the line?
Jeff Fowler: One of my favorite things to do prior to a movie release is to kind of see what everybody was hoping for. I mean, just the debate over who should be next and what characters should get teased next. That’s such a great discussion, it just goes to show how diverse and how many very strong options there are to choose from. Obviously, Shadow is very personal to me just from my history with the game, but there are so many great characters and it’s sometimes difficult to have a library of really great characters that all these fans are dying to see. It’s an embarrassment of riches!