When news of a new Sonic fan film hit from out of the blue, I must admit, I got way more excited than any normal human being should. Sure, we’ve had some recent projects come out of the pipeline like the yearly Christmas tradition of Sonic and the gang doing holiday-type-things, the Sonic Prologue animated short (that I’ll sadly admit to not having watched) and more than one Sonic.exe film (which I’ll gladly admit to not having watched), but they didn’t capture my imagination like that one magical moment a few years back. When Jim Sass, Richard Kuta, and Eddie Lebron all threw their hat in the ring at once, trying to create Sonic fan films with very different goals in mind.
Their legacies, only history will know for sure. But ever since that triple knuckled punch, I’ve remained pretty quiet on the subject, at least when it comes to writing about fanfilms on the front page of Retro. But when I was linked The Hedgehog, and saw that initial poster of an awkward teenager sitting upon a merry-go-round dressed as Sonic, I knew I had to watch it posthaste. And moreso, talk about it. Did that enthusiasm last after I watched the short? Well, not in the same way, I can safely say. But before you read what I thought, go ahead and watch it for yourself. A brief warning, even though there’s nothing violent or sexual in it, the film is definitely not targeted towards kids, so hide them away for seven minutes.
Yep. That was nominated for best UK Short Film at the 2015 London Short Film Festival.
The short begins with a strange, ominous sound. Music that’s meant to just hang in the background, rarely changing, giving us an establishing shot of a peaceful English town. Where or when is not important, just that it is. After some VHS-inspired opening titles, we finally see “The Hedgehog,” a boy who is dressed up as the titular hero walking down the quaint road, the only sign of life in all directions. He walks solemnly, staring down at the cement as he leaves the neighborhood, looking incredibly depressed.
Once out in the almost-wilderness, the boy’s pace slightly picks up, though his face refuses to admit that any joy might be inside him. Running along a paved path, he stops only to pick up a golden soda can tab, placing it in a fanny pack filled with all sorts of golden items that are vaguely ring shaped. His non-adventure continues on, somersaulting down a hill, trying to jump with the help of random metal in the middle of nowhere, and running on an even smaller hill. Finally he stops to fix the tape around his red shoes, resting on a manual merry-go-round.
His attention is caught by the only other living thing that’s appeared – a man rolling along in a motorized scooter, whose close-up shows a pair of glasses on an overweight face, evoking a real life Dr. Eggman. In his lap, a cage holding a single bird. The child watches with what passes as interest, the non-Eggman opening the cage and allowing the bird to fly free.
The boy follows the tracks of the man’s motorized scooter, though the speed at which it was going, the child could have easily ran up to the man, barraging him with a million questions he’d rather not answer. Instead, he presumably sat at the merry-go-round until the man had already left and was done for twenty minutes, then followed the faint tracks so he could creepily approach the man’s house.
And creepily approach he does! Walking along, the old man, now without the Egg glasses, watches through his dirtied window as the fake-Sonic approaches. With the threat of unwanted company, the man does what any self-respecting human being would do: he grabs at a pile of cords which should be behind a television and not in front and rips them from their sockets, even though some of those were probably screwed in and should not have pulled out so easily. Oh well, the manner of which cords are unplugged aren’t important to the story at hand!
The child walks around the corner of the house, finding the motorized scooter sitting outside in the grass, which doesn’t seem like the best place to store a piece of expensive equipment. Anyone could just swoop in and steal it! But I guess security isn’t on the man’s mind, as the child is able to walk into the house just fine. As the depressing-looking-non-hedgehog enters, the man scrambles to put the mess of cords into his bathtub. Yes, it looks odd, especially as he doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do with them.
As the large man finally decides to tie a cord to a handle, the boy enters the room the man was standing in only moments ago. A bedroom, full of dusty action figures, VHS tapes, random video games, and that curtained window. Right in the middle of the room? A homemade Sonic the Hedgehog plush. Jump cut to the old man, holding that exact same plush. Jump cut back to the boy picking it up. The film jumps back and forth, the boy looking at the doll curiously, the old man caressing it filled with sorrow, all the while showing what he was doing with those cords: constructing a homemade noose in which to hang himself. As he stands on a stool, the film ends.
The reason I’ve taken so long to write this review after seeing the short the first time is because…well, I just haven’t known exactly what to make of it. What to say about it. There’s both a lot going on, and nothing going on. All the while screaming “look at me, I have meaning! I’m not pretentious at all, really!” There’s a message here, but one that the filmmakers haven’t given as much thought to as they could have. Not that they didn’t think about it at all, but a little more research, a little more simmering, could have gone a long way.
In a bid to make you watch the film and not spoil whatever they were going for, the official description reads as follows: “THE HEDGEHOG is a short drama that follows a lone boy, who dressed up as his favourite video game hero, searches for adventure in a deserted suburban landscape.” There’s not much arguing with that. We have a lone boy, a very deserted landscape, and…I guess he’s searching for adventure? But he doesn’t seem quite happy with the concept. In fact, he doesn’t seem happy about anything. The implication is he’s been doing this for a long while, but if he ever dressed up as Sonic and ran around the neighborhood with any sense of joy, it is long gone. That fanny pack is full of random gold bits, but not even finding a new one in a sea of emptiness gives him a smile. He is a kid without purpose, barely trying to live in his hero’s footsteps. And when he sees the old man? Whose round face and fake Eggmobile bare some resemblance to the villain of the piece? He doesn’t run after with glee in his eyes. The boy sits, waits, watches, wonders, and slowly walks to see where the man lives and what his deal is. The old man’s appearance should spark something more in the child, unless what happens in the ending is meant to make us believe the two are one and the same.
There’s no doubt the most unsettling moment of the piece is the final scene involving the suicide. The lynchpin of the entire narrative, it makes everything that came before it confusing, and doesn’t resolve anything that the work was trying to speak on. To talk about the suicide, the main theme of the film needs to be be addressed as well. A theme that the filmmakers have gone on record saying it is what they wanted to explore, but something that is not obvious: Peter Pan Syndrome.
According to Wikipedia, PPS is “the pop-psychology concept of an adult (usually male) who is socially immature. The category is an informal one invoked by laypeople and some psychology professionals in popular psychology.” Now, I could read the many writings on the subject, but a critical analysis of a disorder not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association is outside the realm of what a review on the front page of Sonic Retro should extend to. In a nutshell, it’s a person who does not want to accept adult responsibilities, who tries to put on an “I don’t care” attitude while their ego/pride/emotions are actually easily hurt. Someone who is constantly trying to fill the vacuum in their lives by being around people, sleeping with anyone who is willing, and turning to drugs and alcohol.
I’m sure there are many degrees of how someone who could potentially be diagnosed with PPS (even if you can’t officially be diagnosed as such) functions through in life. Yet The Hedgehog tackles the idea in an incredibly superficial way, using the phrase “Peter Pan” and going “oh, must be someone who likes video games and never grew beyond that point, slowly becoming ostracized from everyone.” Yet the two main books on the subject seem to consider that, no, these people aren’t generally social outcasts, they just have behavior that isn’t socially acceptable for their age. The second of a pair of books by Dr. Dan Kiley, The Wendy Dilemma, is written for women who are generally attracted to and caught in relationships with the Peter Pans of the world.
The way the short film plays out, the Peter Pan aspect feels less like something the story is interested in, and more a buzz word that the filmmakers came across in post production and decided to use it while trying to sell people on watching. Nothing about the behavior of either character falls into the description of what being a Peter Pan is. Being obsessed with media created for children and trying to resist adult responsibilities while shifting blame of their problems in life to other people do not go hand in hand. And a cursory search of “Peter Pan Syndrome” and “Suicide” turns up nothing substantial.
What does The Hedgehog feel like its about instead? Emptiness. Depression. Being shunned from society, perhaps by their own doing. Something the child exemplifies in his very appearance, and what the old man must possess. After all, one doesn’t try to hang themselves with random cables if they are living a fulfilling life. As the kid enters the man’s house, the two events jump back and forth until they are united by a single item: the handmade Sonic plush. When the child finds it, he is hesitant in picking it up, almost confused as to its existence. The older man? He holds it tightly, caressing it in a fashion which shows that it meant something to him, but can no longer tether him to this world. They both react differently to the item, yet seem to possess it at exactly the same time.
The ambiguity of the relationship between the older man and the boy feels like a forced moment of symbolism, an attempt to make the audience talk about the short way after the credits have rolled. Are the old man and the young teen separate people? Has the child wandered into what his future may hold? Or are they one and the same, the child a figment of the man’s imagination, or a manifestation of his misspent youth coming back to haunt him? Plenty of filmmakers place moments in their movies to spark conversation, and the fact I’m writing this review at all is proof that, at the very least, they have succeeded in doing that.
Regardless if they are the same or different, nothing is gained from the boy breaking into the house. There’s never any interaction between the two, aside from the man seeing the boy from a distance and deciding to kill himself because of it. The boy is not excited by the bedroom, or the plush that looks like his hero. He is also not disturbed, or distraught, or showing any form of emotion besides vague confusion. There’s no sense that this is his room if the two are meant to be the same. Yes, there’s a bed. But if this was his room and he sits in here for all time playing video games…there’s no television. Where there should be a TV, there’s only a window. Is that meant to be symbolic, that in the old man’s final moments in time, the only entertainment is the outside world, a life that he missed by sitting in his room and playing video games, even though if he was a child when Sonic was new he would not yet be an old man because Sonic hasn’t been around that long? Who knows!
The film didn’t have to wrap everything up perfectly, but it would have gone a long way for the two characters to even exist in the same room, or for the boy to spot what the old man was about to commit. Hogfather, a writer over at The Sonic Stadium, made a point as to what the ending could have been that if I tried to rephrase would still feel like I’m lifting it from him:
[The] implication is that the boy is doomed. Maybe if he took his head piece off, that would have been a subtle hint that he wasn’t going to let his obsession ruin him?…One interpretation that I thought you were going to go down which would have been a lot better, yet you would have kept your original message and intention yet not ended on shock value, was if the boy sees Eggman and realises if he keeps being alone or letting his obsession take over him, he’ll become the villain of the game he loves and not the hero…most kids when they play want to be the hero, this boy did, yet we see a possible older or representation of his future self as the villain, as fun as it is to do impressions of Eggman, I can’t imagine many kids would want to grow up to be the Eggman we saw in your film.
A moment of hope in an otherwise bleak narrative would have gone a long way. Even if you didn’t have the boy shed his hedgehog hat, even if he just stared at the old man and he stared back in an effort to keep the ambiguous nature of the pair alive, it would have ended in a moment where the idea of suicide is questioned.
Which brings up one point that bothers me to no end: we never see anyone actually being happy. You would think in a film that is trying to deal with youthful obsessions, that at some point we’d see this make someone happy. But look at that kid dressed as Sonic! He is not enjoying himself. His eyes are puffy, almost like he’s been sitting there crying nonstop over the state of his life. We see him interact with no one, so we have no idea what his situation is. We don’t see his family life, or lack thereof. We definitely don’t see him interact with anyone in his peer group. I understand the filmmakers didn’t want any spoken dialogue, but I’m not asking for the Sonic kid to be needlessly ridiculed by some teenage boys. A simple shot of some other kids playing together, or riding their bikes, or just dicking about in the streets? Or a random adult, looking at the kid with confusion, sadly shaking their head? You don’t need anyone to interact directly with the kid, just the sense that there is a world around him, even if it is dull, and that he feels like an outsider.
Why is he dressed as Sonic? The description to the film states right there that he is searching for adventure. There is definitely something missing in his life, and video games aren’t the key to filling that hole. If they were? He’d be hanging out with his peer group, who are more than likely all sitting at home playing Call of Duty. Instead of being at home staring at the screen, he ventures outside, while the viewer is left to feel his actions are awkward not because of society, but from the lack thereof. If anything, the boy is dressed as Sonic from an intense feeling of boredom, and rather than kill himself in a desolate world, he goes outside in the vague hope something might happen in his life, as nothing else is going on. Unfortunately, all he is finds is a suicidal man who has given up on being a part of society and hangs himself while his dusty, unkempt collectibles lie to rot.
I want to be clear in my criticism. I’m not saying that the filmmaking duo went forward to tackle ideas that don’t exist, or aren’t worthy to be explored. The themes, both those stated and those the film actually tries to dissect then glue back together, can make for an interesting discussion. There are plenty of people who are anti-social, that dive into their own fictional world, not wanting to deal with anything out of their control. You have men and women who refuse to grow up, but you also have men and women who are mentally unprepared for any aspect of adulthood. Someone who finds solace in fiction, and in the process become outsiders in the most extreme sense of the word. But at the same time, not everyone who finds entertainment or joy in something youthful automatically allows their life to fall apart, spending eternity in their parents basement until their heart finally fails, surrounded by the remains of dusty Cheetos bags.
There’s a reason conventions get bigger every year, and people devote time to create the perfect cosplay costume. What might not be considered “the norm” still unites, and people have become friends and even gotten married based on an initial meeting that they both liked Sonic. I know, weird to think about. I’m not saying the film should have begun with a seven minute montage of geeks living happy fulfilling lives, but the nonstop dread portrayed in The Hedgehog makes it seem that even those who don’t want to dress up as Sonic or play videogames are caught in an endless cycle of sadness, and that trying to find any sort of escape will backfire, forced to end your life by your own hand.
Ok, maybe I’m being a bit hard on the film. So, allow me to point out a few positives. For background ambient music, I liked the soundtrack. Sound overall was done well. The subtle clicks of running shoes on pavement, the whirr of the scooter in the grass, each sound pops out especially with the lack of dialogue. The cinematography was pretty decent, even if there’s the feeling the director really wants to be Wes Anderson. The one shot that the duo came up with to base the whole film around – the child sitting on the merry-go-round being sad – is certainly one that drew me in to watching the short, even if I found fault with the rest. The casting? They did a pretty good job, acting way better than you’d think a film without dialogue centering around Sonic the Hedgehog would call for. Heck, the guy playing fake Eggman was in Return of the Jedi! You can’t go wrong with that.
I also want to make a special point about the setting of The Hedgehog. Either the filmmakers are extremely lucky, or they are amazing location scouts. The old man’s house, the random rolling hill path, the quaint English town. They all play into the story, making this weird, almost surreal world in which the boy and the man live in, evoking South Island in the most subtle of ways. I just wish the story had been that much stronger to really take use of what they had access to, though maybe I’m expecting too much from a short that’s only six minutes without the credits.
There was another reason why I didn’t put this review up on Retro earlier. When I’ve written about fan films in the past, one of the key elements is that the film was actually about Sonic the Hedgehog. Sure, it might be live action and feature human beings who definitely don’t resemble anthropomorphic animals, but at the end of the day, it was still a film about Sonic. An exploration of the characters, the world in which he inhabits. Be it extremely faithful or going off in some weird interpretation, they at least tried to be something Sonic. This film? Sure, who we might call the main character is dressed up as Sonic, but he definitely isn’t Sonic. If the twist ending was the realization that the kid, trapped in the boring, hellish landscape of his life, was actually Sonic the Hedgehog and placed in this prison by Dr. Eggman, then rebels and is able to break out of that simulation and into the world of the games? That would be one thing. But it isn’t. I’m incredibly hesitant to call this a “fan film,” even though the creators would probably love that I do. After all, there’s a reason they began posting on the Sonic Stadium as soon as this short became publicly available.
Not gonna lie, looking back, part of me was tempted to just write the shortest review ever: “The Hedgehog is a terrible film, pretentious in every aspect of its execution. Do not watch it unless you want to be confused and sad for superficial reasons.” But aside from being incredibly mean spirited, that wouldn’t have been the whole story. Like I’ve said before, there is a germ of a good idea here, dressed up in settings that would make for an interesting exploration of a saddened side of fandom in general. But caught up in their own desire to be deep and meaningful, the duo of Chris Lee and Paul Storrie got lost, who by their own admission had the final scene end in suicide just to bring some drama in the story. I’d be curious to see what films, short or otherwise, they’ll create in the future, but The Hedgehog left a sour taste in my mouth. You know something has stumbled when, after watching the ending credits, I realized I’d have much rather been watching Return to Little Planet 2.