Breakdown 1: Sonic the Hedgehog

We meet again. Did you like last week’s Challenge post? Just lie to me.

Today’s a little different; it’s time for our first character Breakdown! Breakdowns are posts wherein I analyze an existing character design and try to discern what makes it work…or…not work.

I thought I’d start this category off with a bang—begin with a design that’s distilled and marketable, maybe even iconic. Our first guest is somebody near and dear to my heart. He’s fast, he’s blue, he’s the designated spokescreature of Olive Garden, Zillow, and Puma alike—America’s sweetheart, Sonic the Hedgehog!

I guess I should bring people up to speed on this guy (Lord my God, forgive the pun). Chances are you’re at least marginally familiar with him, but in case you’re out of the loop, Sonic is the titular mascot of a series of video games produced by SEGA. The definitive titles are platformers about going really fast and subsequently careening into unforeseeable death.

I’m sure you know where this post is going. Just last month, Sonic graced us with his first feature-length spectacle in over a decade. When the first promotional images breached federal containment, the moviegoing public went apeshit trying to make heads and tails of the blue blur’s new…makeover.

The genetic abomination you see before you is Sonic, all the same. Maybe it’s dawned on you by now that the subject of today’s Breakdown is mass appeal, specifically in the context of the uncanny valley.

If you’ve ever felt deeply upset locking eyes with a mannequin or antique dress-up doll, you’ve probably experienced the effects of the uncanny valley. An article by Valentin Schwind, Katrin Wolf, and Niels Henze defines it as a concept that “describes the non-linear relationship between human likeness and affinity.” If a character is made up of both realistic and unrealistic human elements—in just the right proportion—they’ll look inconsistent and creepy.  

The year is 2018. Enter Movie Sonic—from stage left: the Devil’s direction. Suddenly, the Doomsday Clock is five seconds to midnight. Applying the principles of the uncanny valley, which one of Sonic’s qualities stand out as unnerving? The subtly toned man-legs, reduced to the proportions of an anthropomorphic hedgehog and covered in fluorescent-blue, computer-generated fur? How about the moist, beady eyeballs, encircled by set of fleshy, pink eyelids, which themselves are bedecked in delicate baby lashes? Or maybe it’s the unapologetically human maw, announced by lips of a visceral hue and gnashers of a nightmarish anatomy.

All of them. All of them are uncanny. These traits comprise a cryptid that’s capable of breaking not only the sound barrier, but our collective spirits. This is not Sonic; this is an affront to God.

But hark! One Twitter movement, a few months, and—unfortunately—a lot of layoffs later, mankind’s desperate prayers were answered: Movie Sonic had been redesigned. This outcome provides us with a choice educational opportunity. Invoking yet again the combined brainpower of Schwind, Wolf, and Henze, let’s pick out exactly what Movie Sonic 2.0 does right.

Here’s an easy one: the new Sonic looks more like a cartoon. In their research, Schwind and co. assert that a character exhibiting “unequal levels of realism” contributes to “increasing feelings of uncertainty in the observer.” It’s hard to “assign a category” to a character like Movie Sonic 1.0 because, as a humanoid figure, he looks simultaneously too real and not real enough. The redesign, however, falls squarely in the “cartoon” class, with proportions that, while unrealistic, are more harmonious in the context of a three-foot-tall, bipedal hedgehog. Tiny goblin paws? No—big, silly gloves. Disconcerting and vaguely human musculature? Uh-uh—Fleischer-era noodle limbs

An appealing overall shape is all well and good, but it’s the minutiae that do the heavy lifting when it comes to adapting Sonic for the human realm. A closeup reveals that Movie Sonic 2.0 has forgone the chapped lips, glossy tear ducts, and unshapely teeth that so blighted his previous iteration. Schwind and co. note that fewer, but not zero, facial details are seen as desirable in virtual character design. While being able to distinguish the individual hairs on Sonic’s body isn’t a universally appreciated privilege, a perfectly smooth, totally faithful recreation of the gaming world’s Sonic would’ve looked conspicuous—well, more conspicuous than an organism like Sonic does by default. The visual effects team at the now-defunct Moving Picture Company struck an elusive compromise between realistic detail and artistic freedom.

So a massive salute is in order for Tyson Hesse, who headed Sonic’s much-needed reconstructive surgery, and the poor folks in the VFX department, who practically gave their lives and jobs to save us. Without porting Sonic straight from the games and into the movie, these artists have taken an irredeemably uncanny character design and come up with an interpretation that registers both as a cartoon and a physically plausible entity. There is hope yet for this star-crossed continuum.

Next time, it’s back to designing a character. Hopefully, I don’t eat my words and summon a creature more twisted and faithless than Movie Sonic 1.0. Until then, sweet dreams!

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