Book Coach Corner: Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Background: What Is Book Coach Corner?
(For those of you who have seen these types of posts before, you can jump down to Synopsis :)
I am a certified book coach via Author Accelerator. The goal of a coach is to help writers get their best story into the world. This covers support in every part of the writing process: planning, drafting, editing, polishing, and publishing.
A big part of the job, though, is helping writers create their best stories. This means strengthening character motivation, tightening cause and effect threads, assisting with plotting, and much more.
In this blog series, I thought it would be fun to look at popular and classic books, TV shows, and movies with the eye of a coach. What would I suggest to the artist to help make the narrative stronger? What are the strengths and opportunities in the piece?
A couple more details to see if this tantalizes your blog-reading taste buds:
- The reviews will go in-depth on the subject, so it may not make sense if you haven’t read/viewed it
- It will spoil everything if you haven’t read/viewed the blog’s subject
- At the beginning, I’ll give a quick synopsis and my “gut” reaction to the work. This is the subjective stuff, so that I can then get into the work’s architecture with more of an objective eye to story, improvement, and praise
Those are the details. This entry takes a look Sonic 2, a movie that I thought was a great adventure film for kids.
I’m doing things a bit differently for this post because I think most people recognize that Sonic 2 is what it is: it’s a kids’ movie.
But I do think it offers a really valuable lesson in different uses of art. Yes, films, books, and TV shows are meant to convey a story and give us feelings, but I think we often highlight the textbook way of doing things and don’t give credence to other ways stories can move us.
One really important caveat before jumping into the fun, Sonic shenanigans, is that, as a narrative, Sonic 2 has its fundamentals down. In terms of a clear story and character arc, it’s solid:
- It has both external and internal conflict for Sonic. Dr. Robotnik and Knuckles are his external antagonists. Internally, Sonic is trying to figure out what “being a hero” really means.
- The story has a defined narrative arc. Robotonik returns triggering the quest for the Master Emerald. This quest has a clear sequence of escalating events leading to a showdown with Robotnik and his machines.
- Sonic’s internal transformation and the external narrative climax co-exist. In the film’s ending, Sonic is haggard and beaten down, but he knows that he has to save his family. He realizes being a hero is about sacrifice and selflessness rather than showing off or being famous.
And because it has these solid bones, Sonic 2 allows itself time and space to do something that all kids love (but most writers and artists forget they can do): play.
A Detour for Film Nerds
Sonic 2 falls in a unique camp as a film.
In cinema studies, there is something called the Cinema of Attractions. It is often used to describe the very early cinema which was largely storyless. It evokes short sequences of a train arriving at a station, people going to work, or a man and a woman kissing. In the early 20th century, these scenes didn’t have a narrative, but they struck audiences because they showed them places and scenes they wouldn’t have been able to experience except on film. The emphasis wasn’t on narrative catharsis but on the experience of the scene.
These attractions provided a window into a different world.
The heir apparent of these snippets of film is the spectacle films of today. The Marvel movies carry on this concept of big, crazy stunts and visuals that show us something new and exciting.
There is a difference, however, between what Marvel does and what Sonic 2 is doing. In Marvel movies, the CGI and stunts, serve the narrative. They are set pieces that anchor the character arcs of the protagonists. For instance, when Spider-Man (choose your favorite of the last seventeen iterations) gets his powers, he takes to the city and flies around on his webs. Despite having the air of spectacle, the scene serves an important narrative purpose: it shows us what Spider-Man is capable of and how he will be able to traverse the city in new ways.
In Sonic, things happen without any due cause. They occur because they are fun, weird, and entertaining. They technically move the narrative needle, but if you removed them completely, you wouldn’t be lost.
If you don’t see Spider-Man flying around the city with webs but then see him airborne circling the Empire State Building, it would cause far more confusion than if you missed the ten-minute dance fight in Sonic 2.
In Sonic, there were two major scenes that I thought qualified as complete attractions. Their only purpose was to entertain and enthrall:
- The aforementioned dance fight. In this scene, Sonic and Tails travel to Siberia and get caught in a snowstorm. They disguise themselves and enter a pub which devolves into a dance fight with a local dancing legend. It erupts into a candy-colored spectacle with absolutely no narrative purpose. As I said if you cut out this 10 minutes and went directly to Tails flying Sonic to the Siberian temple…. You wouldn’t miss anything.
- The thwarted wedding. As this 20-minute digression was happening, I actually whispered to myself in the theater, “This is BONKERS.” Basically, an intelligence agency uses Sonic’s “earth mom”’s sister to infiltrate the Sonic family via a romance. This is revealed right before the couple says “I do” and leads to a chaotic chase between the bride and her duplicitous groom. During the course of this sequence, there is an avalanche, a golf cart chase, and an exploding cake. It’s twenty minutes of pure, sophomoric shenanigans.
After seeing the movie, I read reviews because I didn’t know how I would review it myself. Yes, it was a narrative mess. But, also yes, it was FUN.
I thought back to the silly movies of my youth (Problem Child, Clifford, Mouse Hunt) and realized that those don’t really get made anymore. Studios direct their money at parents, which means that movies usually have complex, integrated themes for moms and dads. They don’t let themselves get TOO silly.
Sonic felt like a movie made for two, distinct groups: kids and Sonic fans. And that was refreshing.
I think they nailed it.
It’s rare to see a cinema of attraction like Sonic, and it’s actually kind of wonderful. At a certain point in the movie, I was growing judgmental and had to tell myself to “shut up.” When a chili-dog-fart joke was made, I actually told myself: “Little Tedd would have DIED at this scene.” And it’s true.
When I did read a full review of the movie, one critic snarkily noted that this was for kids and there was nothing to entertain grown-ups.
To that person’s specific critique, I’d say the same thing I told myself: “Shut up.” Sometimes things aren’t made for you.
The Cinema of Attractions teaches us that sometimes spectacle can exist for its own sake. It creates a space for awe, wonder, humor, and experiential viewing that causes us to forget the world around us and pulls us into the fictional space before us. Yes, it’s not going to entertain everyone, but these moments can transport and inspire audiences.
It happens in novels as well. I think of Tolkien’s long poems and songs in The Lord of the Rings. They don’t move the story forward, but they serve as pieces of beauty that we can admire, then move on.
When you’re writing, it can often become a slog because we are thinking about all the expectations people will have of us. Will Oprah have this in her book club? Will I get a buzzy New York Times review?
This line of thought chokes our creativity and diminishes our own voice: writing becomes work instead of play.
My advice is to be a little like Sonic 2. Get your fundamentals solid (the character and narrative arcs), then let yourself play. Add slapstick and stick in a poem. Add that golf cart chase followed by a chili-dog-fart joke.
Just as in life, some of the most amazing things aren’t on the well-worn trail. You have to get off the road and try something new. It may not please that NYT book reviewer, but, most likely, nothing will. What it could do is give someone having a bad day a transportive, brief experience of wonder.
And that’s reason enough to write it.
I unabashedly enjoyed Sonic 2, even getting slightly emotional at the climax when Super Sonic saves his family (who am I?!). It serves as a great reminder that art can be silly, playfully, and sophomoric and still deeply resonate with folks.
Congrats to the whole production team for making a fun movie that rocked the box office.
Tedd Hawks is a writer, trainer, and book coach from Chicago. You can follow his Instagram and humor blog. If you’re interested in book coaching services check out his offerings here.