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How 'Sonic the Hedgehog' director saved the movie from massive internet backlash

Ryan Faughnder, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

After Paramount Pictures released the first trailer for its "Sonic the Hedgehog" movie last April, the film seemed doomed to an increasingly common fate in Hollywood -- death by internet backlash.

Footage from the live-action/computer-animation hybrid, based on Sega's flagship video game franchise, drew fury from fans who described the famed blue speed demon's design as "nightmare fuel," with many citing his unnervingly humanoid teeth.

For Jeff Fowler, the first-time feature director tasked with bringing Sonic to life, the rebuke stung. But the 41-year-old visual effects veteran quickly rallied his team in Culver City to take the unusual step of redesigning the character to more closely resemble the hedgehog first introduced in 1991.

"I allowed myself an hour or two where I was feeling pretty sorry for myself," Fowler told The Times. "But then it was like, 'You know what? You've got to get everybody excited about doing the revision, as crazy as that sounds.' There was definitely a bit of a pep talk, but it was all genuine because I really believed it was a problem that could be solved."

Social media can be unforgiving for studios trying to bring nostalgic intellectual properties to the big screen. In a business dominated by titles based on already beloved characters and stories, studios must often grapple with how much to cater to any given franchise's most vocal fan base.

Universal Pictures' "Cats," based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, never recovered from its first trailer, which was widely jeered for its jarring digital effects that turned its actors into CGI human-feline hybrids. After months of serving as the butt of online gags, the film flopped at the box office. On the other hand, Walt Disney Studios refused to cave to online snark directed at Will Smith's blue-skinned genie in the initial marketing for last year's "Aladdin" remake. That movie grossed more than $1 billion.

 

Reshoots have become commonplace on big-budget studio movies, but rarely are they done in response to such a public outcry over marketing materials. For Fowler and ViacomCBS-owned Paramount, however, it was obvious "Sonic" needed a makeover. Fowler tweeted several days after the backlash, promising changes were coming. After that, Paramount and Sega kicked in an estimated $5 million for the revisions, and delayed the release by about three months so fixes could be made.

The problem with the first design was "too much realism," Fowler said. On the next attempt, the filmmakers embraced the "cartooniness" of the character, making the eyes bigger and the teeth less visible.

"It's a 'Sonic the Hedgehog' movie, and the fans who've been loving this character for 30 years are the ones we needed in our corner," Fowler said. "It was definitely a challenge but a very exciting one, once it all clicked."

If the PG-rated movie succeeds when it's released this weekend, it could generate a much-needed new family-friendly franchise for Paramount, which is looking to recover from years of box-office struggles.

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