Cinema Sundays - Sonic the Hedgehog OVA (1996)
"Grandpa, tell me about the console wars."
"Ah, yes sonny, that was many years ago, when ghosts were in hi-c and pepsi was clear..."
"Tell me sonny...what year is it?"
For those of us who grew up in the early 1990s, this was our war. Yes, we had the post-apocalyptic world of Crossfire to look forward to and our attention would later turn to digipets and arguing over which Pokemon version was best, Red, Blue, or Yellow. (Wait...are we sure it isn't the 1990s?) But, until those days arrived, we had the ultimate console war. Sega Genesis vs. Nintendo. You were in one camp or another. You discussed and debated the virtues of zelda, toejam and earl, vectorman, donkey kong, golden axe, and more as you used games, gameplay, graphics, sound, and speed to make your case. Of course, the Sega fans always had 'Blast Processing' as the ace up their sleeve to make the Nintenkids look foolish in the assertions.
But if speed was your argument, you couldn't do better to make your argument than to intone the blue blur himself: Sonic the Hedgehog. Specifically created as a counterpoint to Nintendo's Super Mario, Sonic was the 'cool' character; he was hip, fast, and had 'tude. Sega started pouring out games and merchandising to saturate the market with his likeness and make the kids who didn't have him on their school supplies or in their bedroom look uncool and unpopular. In the early 1990s sonic even had two separate TV shows.
(But thats a review for another day.)
But in the mid 1990s, Pierrot Studios in Japan obtained the license to make a Sonic animated show and created a two-part series (later edited into a hour long movie for America) simply titled Sonic the Hedgehog the movie. Sonic OVA is an interesting amalgamation of the video games up to and including Sonic CD, possibly the Sonic comics, and anime.
To those of you who are unfamiliar with the Sonic OVA, that is not surprising as it had very little presence in the American market. Pierrot Studios, a few years after the OVA lost the license to the franchise and ADV Films, who released it as 'Sonic the Hedgehog: The Move' in the U.S. in 1999, also lost the license shortly thereafter as well. The 1999 DVD release (beyond a limited VHS release in Japan and the U.S.) are the only times the Sonic OVA has been released on a physical format. Even digital versions of it are not available on streaming services. Furthermore, the DVD release was done in large part to promote the Sega Dreamcast and the relaunching of Sonic in Sonic Adventure.
(Who knew he was talking about his own franchise.)
Despite 'Sonic the Move' being used as a tie-in with Sega's transition of Sonic to the Thiiiiiiiiiird Diiiiiiiimension, the Sonic OVA is a re-imagining of Sonic in its own right and is a time-capsule of sorts when the Sonic timeline wasn't filled with junky 3D games and Sega wasn't as strict with their license.
(How's that working out Sega?)
But I digress. The general plot of the Sonic OVA is that Dr. Robotnik, in an attempt to defeat Sonic, has crafted Metal Sonic. But in order to bring his creation to life, Dr. Robotnik has to scan Sonic for his physical and mental data to CTRL+C CTRL+V into Metal Sonic. Hi-jinks and doomsday scenario ensue.
Admittedly, I knew little about the Sonic OVA going into it other than it involved Sonic, and that Knuckles wore a sweet cowboy hat.
(Knuckles. For the cool kids who were too cool for Sonic.)
The OVA is a weird amalgamation of the Sonic Games (Sonic 1, 2, 3, Sonic and Knuckles, Sonic Spinball, Sonic CD), yet has almost nothing to do with them. I guess I should say that they draw more from the imagery and art style of the games vs. the plots (what little there are). Primarily the art style is derived from Sonic CD.
(Sonic CD and Sonic OVA Respectively.)
Additionally, the OVA, like Sonic CD, is obsessed with floating things. In Sonic CD, Sonic tries to save the floating Little Planet, while the OVA goes one step farther and just has the whole planet floating.
(Why? Reasons. Toss that psychics junk outta this OVA.)
In this particular imagining of the Sonic universe, there are two sectors of 'Earth': the interconnected sphere of floating islands waaaay up in the stratosphere called (creatively) The Land of Sky. Due to the large numbers of land masses floating in the air, and thick layers of cloud cover, the rest of the planet is known as (again, creatively) The Land of Darkness. The Land of Sky is depicted as lush, vibrant, futuristic, and tropical. The Land of Darkness is depicted as a lifeless wasteland with massive ice sheets covering much of the globe.
What immediately made me enjoy this OVA is one of the reasons I enjoy the Archie Comic STH series. Both depict Sonic's world as a post-apocalyptic landscape occurring at some point in the Earth's future. While the comic specifies that the apocalypse is from an Alien race, this OVA leaves it ambiguous as to what happened. Even in the paradise-like islands floating in the sky we see remnants of past earth civilizations.
(Home Sweet Post-Apocalyptic Home.)
Between the lush landscapes, detailed animation, chill music, and overall setting it creates a very neat atmosphere for this OVA that I really like. I've always enjoyed stories that take place at some ambiguous time in the future of Earth where societies have risen and fallen and Earth is cast a place both familiar yet strange. Plus, the attention to detail in the animation, and an earlier era of anime artistry also appeals to me.
At the start of the OVA, Sonic and Tails are chilling on their floating island home, not doing all that much other than being too cool for school.
(Sonic has his boombox and grandma sunglasses.)
As Sonic and Tails are generally doing nothing, a crazy owl flying a byplane shows up at their island. Apparently he is an representative for the President of the Land of the Sky. But, not only can the owl seemingly not fly under it's own power, it can't fly a plane as well. Tails attempts to intervene and help the owl fly his plane but the crater wall which houses the lake in the jungle on the floating island (physics) is looming large. Sonic, interrupted from his chillaxing, has to save Tails and the Owl from the impending explosion (and subsequent pollution of the lake I imagine) by #gottagofast.
What I do enjoy in this depiction is that Tails is cast as a relatively competent character who is able to take care of himself, is good at working on machines, can hold his own in a fight, and shows a strategic mind at times.
(Hey Sonic! I'm not a useless kid this time!)
I would also extend this to both Sonic and Knuckles as well. Before Sega really set in stone the character types for Sonic, Knuckles, Tails, and Dr. Robotnik, the Sonic OVA had more creative freedom to play around with what the characters could do, their personalities, and character traits. But, when it comes to creating new characters...ehhh....not so much.
Its when Sonic and Tails get to the presidential palace in the Land of the Sky that things start to fall apart a bit in terms of plot as well as that whole creative freedom proving itself as a double edge sword. It is at the presidential palace we are introduced to Sara and the President.
(They're cat people. . .)
Why, Japan? Why must cat people be in everything? Alas, our anime comes at a price. It is just weird in that in the comic universe as well as, to the best of my knowledge, the video game universe, you have mobians (sonic and such) and humans. Pretty much there aren't any mutations of this nature. I wouldn't care if the characters were better written. But the President is cast as your plain vanilla buffoon and his daughter as a spoiled, flirty, and impetuous cat-girl-thing.
(I hope you enjoy this cast, because thats about it.)
I assume all humans are cat people in this world, because we don't see anyone else on this entire planet beyond the four in the above picture, Knuckles, Metal Sonic, and the Owl (who I think is only called 'old man' in the entire OVA). So, the fact that Sara appears prominently throughout the OVA is probably the biggest detractor from the plot in that the purpose her character serves is often at odds with the main storyline in the OVA, and scenes including her usually require a massive shift in tone and atmosphere that gives viewers whiplash.
(Yup. Same special.)
Dr. Robotnik, who is at the palace, explains that in the Land of Darkness, there has arisen a Metal Robotnik and he needs Sonic and Tails to help remove it as it threatens to cause a reactor meltdown which will cause the Land of the Sky to float off into outer space. Sonic and Tails agree, if somewhat hesitantly as they know Robotnik is untrustworthy.
(Does this look like the face of a liar to you?)
The plot in the OVA is fairly simple (make robot, kill sonic, conquer world) but it gets unnecessarily complicated by the need to quickly and poorly explain the planet, how the Land of Darkness and Land of the Sky are symbiotic and make up ways to destroy this relationship with questionable physics. I guess if you don't pay too close attention to the plot it won't kill too many brain cells. That aside, I do enjoy how they have depicted Dr. Robotnik; morbid sense of humor, very dangerous villain, megalomaniac, and somewhat unpredictable while crafting extensive plots. I enjoyed this iteration more than the rather bumbling, incompetent genius that suffers as much slapstick as bad dialogue that we see today.
Further, the plot gets muddled further by Sara. Beyond the tonal and atmospheric shifts necessary to put goofy anime stichk into a relatively bleak storyline, for whatever reason they cast her as a villain of sorts? It gets kinda confusing. Essentially it appears that Sara is bored so she teams up with Dr. Robotnik in his attempts to destroy Sonic the Hedgehog. As it turns out, Metal Robotnik and the overloading reactor are simply distractions to entrap Sonic.
(Red Herrings if you will.)
Oh. And Knuckles (and his sweet cowboy hat) show up at this point. Despite being the only inhabitant of the only floating island in the games and comics, OVA Knuckles is the only inhabitant NOT living on a floating island. Instead of guarding chaos emeralds he is simply a treasure hunter who can fly. Together they destroy Metal Robotnik and continue on to the impending nuclear meltdown.
(Do I smell a potential cross-over?)
The story falls apart more with Metal Robotnik. Because... *gasp* ...Dr. Robotnik was lying! It turns out that he was piloting the Metal Robotnik and...for whatever reason...Sara is with him and in cahoots. The OVA doesn't really explain why other than she is bored and wants some excitement? After Sonic and Tails depart from the presidential palace, Robotnik stays behind because he can't defeat Metal Robotnik, or to hold the President hostage, or to play videogames. I'm not entirely sure.
(You got tons of robots LITERALLY in the President's office. Coup D'etat dat!)
What doesn't make sense is Sara gets mad that Dr. Robotnik is going to try and hurt "her sonic" with Metal Sonic, even though she literally just took part in a battle in which Dr. Robotnik tries to defeat (aka kill) Sonic. She isn't chained up, nor are there any scenes in which she is forced to go. Further, she continues to hang out with Robotnik and have an amiable relationship with him. Either due to editing, or simply poor writing, it feels like there was more to this OVA than we got with the finished product. Bleh. Regardless, Sonic, Tails and Knuckles work their way through the Land of Darkness to Robotnik's massive fortress.
(Which is located in the long abandoned ruins of New York City by the way.)
They get to Robotnik's fortress, fight their way through it, and finally get to the generator room. When Sonic turns the generator off, it traps him in a glass case, reads his metal and physical biometric readings, and brings Metal Sonic to life.
(I'm all outta gum.)
It is at this point we reach the second half of the OVA/Movie and really, the second half of the OVA is by and large one long fight scene between Sonic and Metal Sonic. Beyond the cool atmospheric imagery in the OVA, the fight scenes are the best part of the OVA and are great to watch. They are given the same attention to detail that the landscapes are given and it pays off.
Sonic and Metal Sonic fight for some time in New York City but Tails and Knuckles know they cannot help as they are so they go back to their island home to try and build something to help in the battle. Meanwhile, Robotnik, along with Sara, return to the Land of the Sky. Once Metal Robotnik apparently murders Sonic (of which Sara shows little emotion over), Robotnik wants it to destroy the Land of the Sky (which Sara also shows little emotion over beyond minor petulance).
(Ho hum. Everything I know and loved is being destroyed.)
Since Robonik plans on destroying preeeety much all life on the planet save himself and Sara, he proposes marriage to Sara. Sara imagines what married life will be like. This, perhaps, gives us on of the most disturbing images in an official Sega-approved Sonic the Hedgehog product.
So, what we get is a picture of a cat-girl breastfeeding a baby version of Dr. Robotnik. Yep. Yeah. Just. Yeah. Hmm. . . sigh. . .
I would like to say this is the only cringeworthy moment in the film, but throughout scenes involving Sara, there is a sexual undercurrent throughout them.
Oh, wait, Sonic and Metal Sonic. Right! So, Sonic catches up to Metal Sonic in the Land of the Sky, but overhears a conversation between Knuckles and the President. In it, Knuckles says that to truly destroy the Land of the Sky all one has to do is destroy a single bridge of ice in the north that anchors the whole sch-bang to the planet, preventing it from being thrown into outer space. Since Sonic hears this, and he is mind-linked with Metal Sonic, Metal Sonic hears this and immediately goes to destroy the ice bridge.
(Do the physics of all this seem shaky to you? Wait-a-minute, why aren't I flying anymore?)
SO, everyone meets up at the one ice-bridge that keeps everything held together. Apparently there are lots of lava tubes with molten magma running through the ice sheet that apparently don't melt it? But Metal Sonic tries to use the magma to melt the bridge? Sonic shows up and starts smelling his finger?
(What is up with Sonic smelling his fingers?)
(Maybe Jean-Claude Van Damme can answer that.)
Man, this review really got off the rails. I blame this OVA. Did you know Sega created a character for their games called Tiara Boobowski? Look it up. Crap. Got tangentalized again. The last part of the OVA is one long fight between Sonic and Metal Sonic as Metal Sonic tries to direct a lava flow which previously didn't melt ice to an ice-bridge to melt it and Sonic attempts to stop him. We get a nice T2 moment and the story, such as it is, wraps up, with little resolved other than we learn life as we know it in this Sonic universe hangs on the fact that a bridge made of ice doesn't break due to tectonic activity, continental drift or meteorological shifts in temperature or weather.
So that is by and large Sonic OVA aka Sonic the Movie. Do I recommend it? Despite its flaws and bizarre need to have an sexualized and probably underage cat-girl hijacking this otherwise dark story at regular intervals, this movie has a lot going for it. Excellent animation, good soundtrack, well choreographed fight scenes, and really cool visuals help get viewers past some of the weird scenes and questionable story writing. That, and with a running time of just 55 minutes, the movie doesn't overstay its welcome.
(Sonic: I hope Sega does a better job with the franchise in the future.)