‘SONIC’ director Jeff Fowler charges up family entertainment for quarantine era

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Jeff Fowler. Courtesy of Paramount.

Preston Barta // Features Editor

I recently told my almost-three-year-old that he could no longer watch his favorite superhero family, The Incredibles – which he discovered after a family member bought him a collection of five-minute Pixar reads a year ago. Pre-quarantine, the two movies acted as our babysitters while we prepared dinner. But now – if we were living in the days of video cassettes – we’d say: “We wore out those tapes.” It’s time for new material. 

Well into the third week of quarantine, I have to say things like: “Oh, sorry. The Incredibles aren’t available right now.” (Even though my son has the eyes of a hawk to spot the movies’ thumbnails on Disney Plus and Netflix while I scroll for something fresh.) I suspect boredom and discomfort will only rise as we continue to be cooped up. To help minimize the odds, we’re doing outside activities, coloring and finding solace in new, exciting adventures like Sonic the Hedgehog

Directed by Jeff Fowler, Sonic the Hedgehog released early on digital last week to send a jolt of fun toward our homebound lives. In my review in the Denton Record-Chronicle, I called the movie “a satisfying thrill ride from start to finish.” With its road movie premise – where the titular blue hedgehog (voiced and facially motioned by Parks and Recreation’s Ben Schwartz) and a small-town sheriff (James Marsden) try to locate some special golden rings and throw tech-savvy baddie Dr. Robotnik (an excellent Jim Carrey) off their trail – Sonic has all the booming ingredients needed to keep children’s eyes glued to the television sets and parents cracking up at its clever gags. 

When asked about releasing a movie during the nation-wide lockdown, Fowler remarked that he feels fortunate to be able to share his film earlier than planned, as it’s a title with the power to unite us during troubling times.

“I do think there are a lot of challenges for anyone with kids. So, to have two hours to relax together and take your mind off things, well, that’s what movies do best,” Fowler said. 

James Marsden and Sonic (Ben Schwartz) in ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ from Paramount Pictures and Sega. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Sega of America.

Fowler, an Oscar-nominated animator (2004 short film “Gopher Broke”), grew up loving the popular Sega Genesis character and epic adventures like Star Wars, and he wanted to snowball the pop culture he has admired over the years for his creation. For anyone who watches his new film, you might see the inspiration he took from beloved narratives. 

“You can’t help but look for inspiration everywhere,” Fowler said. “It’s funny because [when you look at specific scenes from Sonic, such as the bar brawl], movies like X-Men: Days of Future Past come up in conversation. [Both films display show-stopping sequences of a supersonic-quick character moving around a room much faster than people comprehend, all set to pleasant music tracks.] We certainly looked at that scene for this, and it was brilliantly executed. But there’s an earlier example we took inspiration from.” 

That model came in the form of the 2006 animated feature Over the Hedge. The speedy segment sees a computer-generated squirrel named Hammy (voiced by Steve Carell) gulping down an energy drink and rearranging a few set pieces to work out in his animal pals’ favor. 

“It goes to show that there is so much material out there that is inspired by other work. Of course, you want to make it your own,” Fowler said. “With the bar scene in Sonic, it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up and have a fight like that with Sonic’s personality woven into it, doing all these little pranks. It’s important to consume as much reference as you can, whether it’s other films, animation, or artwork. It’s an important part of the process.” 

Jim Carrey and James Marsden in ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ from Paramount Pictures and Sega. Photo courtesy of Paramount/Doane Gregory.

To Jim Carrey fans out there, viewers may notice the film also takes inspiration from the funnyman’s career. There are lines of dialogue said by Sonic that are noticeably delivered with such an energy that pays homage to Carrey. Carrey, who portrays the story’s mustache-twirling villain, gets the space to (literally) tear up the dance floor and feed into the zany characters we love, like Ace Ventura, the Grinch and Dumb and Dumber’s Lloyd Christmas. 

“There are so many mannerisms of [Carrey’s] that are hardwired into his performance. It’s great to see him make some of his classic moves, but this is also very new,” said Fowler. “He hasn’t played a villain like this before. It wasn’t like he was solely coming out with the greatest hits to pay homage to what he’s done before, but he also gave it a fresh spin. It made me so happy to see him having fun with a character like Dr. Robotnik.” 

In Fowler’s 15-year filmmaking career, he has worked on notable projects (Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are) and with high-profile visual effects companies (Blur Studio). It was at Blur, a company founded in 1995 by Deadpool and Terminator: Dark Fate director Tim Miller, that said he accumulated most skills to step into Sonic

“[Miller] has been a mentor of mine for as long as I can remember. Working with him and the visual artists at the studio were the best training camp for what my experience was on Sonic,” the filmmaker said. “Whether you’re working with a small or large crew, it all comes down to similar things: communication and respecting your coworkers who are just as excited as you are about what they’re doing.” 

As we wrapped up our conversation with the Sonic director, there was a natural need to discuss a particular credit listed on his IMDb filmography: his acting role as “Bob” in a 2002 episode of Gilmore Girls, titled “Eight O’Clock at the Oasis.” However, Fowler set the record straight. 

“I’ve actually been trying to get that credit removed from my IMDb and Wikipedia pages for some time,” Fowler said, with laughter in his voice. “It says Jeff Fowler, but it’s not me. I’m not a failed actor that somehow transitioned over into directing. Somewhere out there is someone with my name who is likely bitter that I have robbed him of his Gilmore Girls work.” 

Our conversation with Fowler shared a lot of the endearing DNA as his film. You could feel the passion in his voice, just as you can with the actors who portray the characters in Sonic. Smiles were had, and memories were created – and I expect nothing less if you take the digital plunge today with Fowler’s cinematic spark of delight.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.