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"Sonic the Hedgehog": A Fan Looks Back

It’s a reviewer’s job to be objective, but you, the reader, are going to have a hard time perceiving my objectivity this time. As anybody with half a brain and the ability to Google can discover, I am, or at least was, a major Sonic SatAM fanboy. I haven’t been an active fan for quite a few years, having obviously moved on to a wider animation fandom, but it was hardly a small part of my life. I was a big fanfic writer. I was there for and was even involved in the whole David Gonterman affair. I own a VHS tape of the entire second season of SatAM that was originally made by Alessandro Sanasi. We are talking old-school fandom here.

So, perhaps I’ve already completely blown it with you. Let me save what face I can by talking about the show’s negatives. Mind you, I love this show. It’s one of my favorites, and has been for over a decade. That said, I don’t agree with the massive hype SatAM gets from the online community; its boosters have hyped it to the point where one would presume it’s the Star Wars of television animation achievements. There are many reasons to enjoy the show, but not enough reasons for it to have such an inflated reputation.

First off, the famed “darkness” of SatAM is only relative. It is a far darker cartoon than it could have been, but it is in no way a constantly and consistently dramatic and intense tale. How could it be? Its star character can’t take anything seriously enough to drive the show into such territory! While SatAM is technically a drama/saga, it may be one of the few to sport a lead character who inherently lightens its tone whenever he’s onscreen.

Moreover, just about the time it found its storytelling speed in the second season, the main artistic influence shifted from Dick Sebast (who must have just come from Batman: The Animated Series) to Ron Myrick, and the second season’s visual look became lighter and more cartoony, albeit still not enough to be as silly as other toons. Ron, who’s been mentioned at Toon Zone before, probably does his finest work here, and it is indeed good work, but there’s no doubt that it’s lighter than the first season, and what darkness remains is leftover design-wise from the Sebast season.

Most of all, though, I must point out that SatAM’s fan-beloved continuity isn’t really all that solid. It really is quite an erratic show. Obviously this is true of the first season, where almost every episode was done by a different writer, each of whom seems to have had a different perception of Mobius. But even the second season doesn’t know what this world and its story are really focused on. Sonic the Hedgehog vacillates between the mystical elements of Mobius, scientific and environmental concerns, and Robotnik’s obsession with finding Knothole. There’s nothing wrong with letting a show express its setting in a variety of ways; that’s life, after all. But I’m not sure that works quite so well when you have an established hero and an established villain, each of whom has a very particular goal in mind for the other—and this is what we have with Sonic (and his Freedom Fighters) and Robotnik. And because the status quo in the series—that is, with Robotnik in power—is unacceptable, these varied and unconnected takes on Mobius and its mythology make the show seem aimless. The fans have overstated its continuity because they’ve done so much work to cull the chaff: even the great fanficker Dan Drazen pulled stuff together from the show, the games, and the Archie comic. By doing this, fans are essentially admitting my point: they felt it necessary to pick and choose in order to construct the canon. Ultimately, the reason the Doomsday Project was a such a good thing for the series was that it gave everybody something in common to talk about.

However, these are comparably small complaints, meant only to puncture some of the more hyperbolic praise the show sometimes gets. As animated fare from the early-to-mid 90s, Sonic the Hedgehog practically defines the phrase “better than it has any right to be”. After all, it was simply the latest in a decade-long line of series cashing in on some franchise. Yet unlike many such shows, Sonic the Hedgehog offered compelling drama that wasn’t in the original source material. Instead of simply offering crazy speed and rainbow colors (unlike some Sonic-inspired toons I could mention), it transposed the one-against-many structure of the Sonic games into a rebellion against a tyranny. Also, among its more rightfully celebrated innovations, SatAM turned the game’s animal-housing badniks into a form of emotional blackmail, by having Robotnik transform all of the heroes’ loved ones into mechanical slaves. While the show isn’t as dark as some might have you believe, it does have a strong atmosphere, especially in the Blade Runner-esque Robotropolis that it wasn’t afraid to paint with a limited and shadowy palette.

But it was the writing and the acting that really elevated SatAM over its peers. As disorganized as it could be, it also could drop aspects that didn’t work and develop those that did, as evidenced by its capitalizing on the fantastic emotional situation of Uncle Chuck. There is also its use of dialogue. Dialogue in many cartoons, especially the franchise-boosters, is either flatly expository or dumbly jokey. SatAM sometimes lives down to these standards, but its wordplay was also often comedic and/or character-developing, because the writers had enough confidence in the characters to just let their personalities bounce off each other.

This also made SatAM a very actor-driven show, and it had the good fortune to have a fantastic voice cast. Rob Paulsen, Jim Cummings, Christine Cavanaugh, Charlie Adler, Kath Soucie, Cree Summer: these people represented the most successful toons of their time, like Tiny Toons, Rugrats, and the Disney Afternoon lineup. Just like those top choices, SatAM was a show willing to let the voice performances be a draw all on their own, and some of these actors’ best work can be heard here (especially from Cummings, a truly memorable and insidious Robotnik). Jaleel White also deserves credit for shedding the Urkel image he was so famous for at the time and giving Sonic a nice sense of attitude without making him entirely brainless. And huge kudos to William Windom’s Uncle Chuck, an authority figure with real warmth yet a definite sense of humor and edge. Ginny McSwain, the voice director, has been all around the animation industry, but this group of performances may be one of her top achievements.

Shout! Factory may have outdone itself for this release. The packaging will naturally be the first thing you notice. Comic writer/artist Ken Penders has done the front image, but the rest of the art was provided by fans. I think this might be one of the best ideas ever conceived for a DVD set, since so many sets are plagued by crappy or inaccurate sketches of the characters. I’d rather look at an eight-year-old’s honest attempt to draw Sonic than a half-hearted professional’s stab at something of practically the same quality; the eight-year-old is the one putting in an effort. And some of these fanart pics are really good; the front cover of the Disc 1&2 part has to be the best of the bunch. As for the episodes themselves: the video quality isn’t perfect, but I don’t see why it would be, as it’s an older ‘toon, and they don’t have digital recordings of it. It’s good enough, at least; there are no visible flaws. It comes with a nice collection of special features as well, with a enjoyable conversation with Jaleel White and a longer and more substantive one with Ben Hurst, the writer who sort became the long-term protector of the series. Between the interviews and all the art and storyboards, there are plenty of things for the extras-fanatic to comb through.

As a fan, I was almost inevitably guaranteed to like this set. Rewatching the entire series, especially the first season, which I hadn’t seen much of in a long while, gave me some perspective on the pros and cons of the entire show, but it also reminded me of all the things that SatAM really did do right. Given what this show might have been (and was, when you look at the various Sonic series of far lesser quality), SatAM should be treasured all the more as a television cartoon whose producers took a chance by aiming at least a little higher artistically. And, probably more than anything else, it’s a very entertaining show with very amusing and involving characters. I doubt that this DVD set is going to boost the SatAM reputation any further; it’s a show that is past its time, and the standard for what we expect from action cartoons and/or kids’ cartoons has changed somewhat in terms of tone and style. But who knows? Maybe I’m wrong, and a new generation of fans could be around the corner. And maybe now the rest of you can see what we’ve been blabbing about for so many years and come to your own conclusions.

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