Not long ago, the world was treated(?) to the first look at Paramount and Sega’s upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog film. The responses were very mixed — ranging from horror and disgust to baffling thirst for Jim Carrey’s Dr. Robotnik — but they were loud. People were talking about the movie, and they still are. The tide may turn, since director Jeff Fowler announced the criticised Sonic design would be changed in the final product, but reports of the script don’t invoke a lot of confidence. Regardless of whether of not the film will actually be good, it’s guaranteed to be weird. How do I know this? Because pretty much every instance of America adapting Sonic the Hedgehog has been inconceivably bizarre in some way, shape or form.
Things like “The Sonic Bible,” Sega of America’s bizarre take on the character’s backstory; the Archie Comics, which were infamous for both their strange storylines and for sparking creator-rights-based lawsuits; and, of course, the nutty and wonderfully of-their-time cartoons from the 90s all speak to a trend in Sonic adaptations. The upcoming film is just a continuation of this tradition. Don’t believe me? Allow me to be your guide to the history of America’s 90s Sonic cartoons.
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Our journey into the wild world of westernized Sonic cartoons starts with a now-defunct production company known as DiC Entertainment. Likely due to their cheap-but-quality production (anti-union policies and other corner cutting led those in the animation industry to claim that “DiC” stood for “Do It Cheap”), DiC was, in its prime, rolling in licensing deals, including properties like Ghostbusters, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and, of course, Sonic The Hedgehog.
DiC’s licensing deal with Sega resulted in three different Sonic cartoons: Sonic the Hedgehog, Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic Underground. Though each series was vastly different, they had three things in common: Sonic was voiced by Urkel himself, Jaleel White; Sonic’s catchphrase was some variation of “Gotta Juice,” which was uttered before speeding away; and, most infamously, Sonic loved to eat chili dogs, a concept that eventually made its way into the games and would go on to become the subject of many Sonic-related memes. As such, I am henceforth going to refer to the DiC Sonic cartoons as “The Chili Dog Trilogy,” or “The Chiligy” for short.
The Fastest Thing Alive
Starting off, we have Sonic the Hedgehog, now commonly referred to as Sonic SatAM. This saturday morning series followed Sonic and a team of Freedom Fighters battling the evil plans of Dr. Robotnik, who sought to roboticize and take over the world. Right off the bat, the series had a powerful pro-environment theme and a cool, dark premise, both of which were communicated pretty strongly in its opening sequence, which slaps like no one’s business.
However, the high quality of the series didn’t stop it from being really freaking weird, since it’s basically law that Sonic adaptations have to be at least a bit out there. There are a lot of things I could mention here, but I’m going to focus on the show’s dark tone and the plans for an unproduced third season.
Where Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic 2 were bright, fun and colorful platformers with little-to-no dark themes or tones within their pixels, Sonic SatAM took place on what was basically a war-torn, post-hostile takeover world where the last surviving refugees of an aggressive attempt at global domination and enslavement hide away and place their future in the hands of children who were more-or-less orphaned by the entire ordeal. Remember, this was a children’s show, a fact only made more disturbing by the way that Dr. Robotnik was depicted: ruthless, sadistic and abusive to his nephew/henchman, Snively.
Things would have only gotten darker and weirder if the series had gotten a third season, according to late series writer Ben Hurst. Among some genuinely interesting and strong ideas, like Snively rising to become the series’ new main antagonist, there were also some wild concepts, like Sally’s Computer AI, Nicole, actually being a girl who was brainwashed into being a computer program. Or how about Robotnik and Snively’s origin being that they came from the past, travelled forward in time to when Earth became known as Mobius and decided to take over the planet because they didn’t like the idea of animals being sentient and wanted to prove their superiority as humans? I mean, I guess that’s better than his motivation just being “I hate that hedgehog!”
Some of these concepts were explored in Archie’s Sonic series, which acted as a continuation of sorts for SatAM, but honestly, even as a fan of Sonic SatAM (all of my childhood trips to Blockbuster were to rent VHS tapes of the series), it’s probably a good thing that season three never happened.
Sonic SatAM was just a bit weird under surface of its cool premise and strong execution. Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, on the other hand? That show was straight-up weird from the get-go. But that was more-or-less the point — instead of being a mature serialized action series, Adventures was a slapstick comedy, pitting Sonic against Robotnik’s incompetent evil plots and bumbling robot henchmen in an episodic format.
Now, you could easily write off the weirdness of Adventures as an effect of its overall setup. It was supposed to be wacky and off-the-walls, that was the whole appeal. So I won’t dwell too much on episodes like the one where Robotnik kidnapped and tortured Sketch Lampoon, a cartoonist who made fun of him in the funny pages, the one where the villain got so sick of a pop song that he banned all music, or even the one where Robotnik builds himself a robot son. No, instead, I want to talk about the now-infamous PSAs that served as end caps for every episode.
Simply titled “Sonic Says,” these segments involved a short scene followed by Sonic teaching the kids at home a lesson, like many other cartoons of the 80s and 90s. Topics ranged from smoking and sexual abuse to my personal favorite, the one where Sonic warns kids not to climb into the dryer. There were also two different segments straight-up telling kids not to be stupid and a whole mess of them where Sonic encourages kids to obey the law and trust authority figures — which is a betrayal to Sonic’s character, honestly.
Perhaps the strangest part about Adventures, aside from “Sonic Says,” was the fact that it was produced and aired concurrently with Sonic SatAM. Adventures actually premiered first, but there was still a long stretch of time where a young Sonic-loving child could find one version of Sonic fighting for the freedom of his planet, then change the channel to find a shenanigan-loving, slapstick Sonic warning her that a tumble dryer could break her bones. The jarring tonal shift between these two concurrent series may be part of the reason Sonic fans are so willing to roll with the franchise’s heaviest punches and memeiest moments.
The Throne Awaits
Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog was somehow not the weirdest DiC Sonic Cartoon. No, that honor belongs to Sonic Underground, the cherry on top of the DiC Sonic sundae — or rather, the chili on top of the hot dog. There’s so much strange stuff to cover about this series, so I’m gonna need all of you to watch the show’s opening to get started.
Are you back? Have you recovered? Are you suddenly questioning everything you’ve ever known? Then you’re ready to delve into the inscrutable world of Sonic Underground.
Premiering in the summer of 1999, Sonic Underground depicted the blue hedgehog as one of three triplets born to Aleena, the Queen of Mobius, alongside brother Manic and sister Sonia. However, with a hostile takeover of Mobius at hand, Aleena was forced to give up and separate her children so they could go into hiding and ensure that there were surviving heirs to the throne. Thus, Sonic, Sonia and Manic (all of whom were voiced by Jaleel White) were raised by different families, only to one day learn of their destiny, join forces to find their mother, free Mobius from Robotnik and claim their rightful places on the throne (yaaaay monarchy). The siblings fought with the help of allies, Sonic’s trademark super speed and their royal necklace medallions that turned into magical instrument weapons.
Oh did I forget to mention that Sonic Underground was a musical show? Because it was totally a musical show.
Sonic, Sonia and Manic, before being left on the door steps of three different families, were gifted with necklaces and medallions that they would eventually find had the power to summon magic instruments. Sonic had a guitar (which doubled as a laser rifle), Sonia a keyboard (which also doubled as a laser rifle) and Manic, a drum set (which could produce seismic waves). They used these to both fight Robotnik and his forces, and perform as a band, The Sonic Underground, wherever they went.
Each episode included a musical number performed by the band. Were the songs any good? I don’t care to listen to them all, but the few I did listen to were alright for a kids show. Though, credit where credit is due, the singers occasionally pulled no vocal punches and belted out some strong performances. Additionally, the musical sequences often featured bizarre visuals, weird edits and a lot of “we have new animation/video production technology, let’s show it off” moments.
Throughout the series, Sonic, Manic and Sonia were pursued by Dr. Robotnik, who sent bounty hunters after the triplets as a means of destroying any and all heirs to the Mobian throne. These bounty hunters went by the names of Sleet and Dingo. Oh, and Sleet had a remote that could turn Dingo into various vehicles, because why not.
Other strange highlights of the series include Sonic being the only triplet who refused to wear clothes; Knuckles making his first animated appearance as a guest character (voiced by Vegeta’s original English VA, Brian Drummond); the episode “Sonic Tonic,” which featured a drug that gave Sonia and Manic super speed, with the eventual side effect of giving them giant feet (sparking the birth of Sonic foot fetish fanart?); and an alternate dimension in which the hedgehog triplets are spoiled, corrupt rulers.
A Whole New Speed Of Hero
Sonic has always been kind of strange, kind of off. The Sonic movie isn’t the first time an American adaptation of the Sega star has been profoundly odd, and it probably won’t be the last, either. If the DiC cartoons, as well as pretty much the entire Sonic franchise, have taught me anything, it’s that we don’t always know what to do with the character; sometimes he’s a royal rockstar, other times he’s best friends with a player’s OC.
Sonic is a complex entity, a character that started with throwing stuff at a wall to see what sticks that developed into a franchise that does the same, and sometimes things get weird, really weird. But, Sonic fans persevere, we roll with the punches pretty damn well. If we survived Sonic Underground, Sonic ‘06 and Sonic Boom, then we can make it through the upcoming film, and hopefully, something great will be waiting over the horizon.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to search for a karaoke bar with the Sonic Underground theme song in its catalogue, because if I have to have it stuck in my head, so do you. Gotta Juice!