In 1992, Michealene Risley was brought in as Sega of America’s director of entertainment and consumer products, and her first job was to steer a new deal with ABC for shows involving Sega’s hottest property: Sonic the Hedgehog.
The company’s CEO, Tom Kalinske, had seen how instrumental the launch of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon series was to the success of the toyline, and he wanted to replicate that with Sonic and his games for the Sega Mega Drive.
This story has been republished to coincide with the release of the Sonic the Hedgehog movie in Australian theatres this week.
“We approached ABC with the idea of doing two shows based on Sonic,” Kalinske remembers. “So we had a syndicated show for the after-school audience, which I think we did around 65 episodes for, and a more edgier one that aired on Saturday mornings.” Risley came in just after the deals for both shows were made — even though Sega at the time didn’t have anyone who could run them. “That’s so classic Tom,” she laughs. “‘Let’s sign two deals’, and then ‘holy shit how are we going to figure out how to do this?’”
Sonic the Hedgehog 1993
By 1993 Risley began to plant the seeds of a larger project: bringing Sonic the Hedgehog to the big screen. At the time the blue blur had serious commercial clout, and other video games movies were being made, so by August 1994 Sega had signed a deal with MGM Studios and Trilogy Entertainment.
“That was when I sat down with Edward Pressman [The Crow, Street Fighter] and a bunch of producers to find out who was the right partner for us,” says Risley. “I was basically driving the Sonic movie. I don’t know who came up with the idea – whether it was Tom or Shinobu [Toyoda, Sega executive vice-president and COO] or me, or we talked about it as a group – but having come from the movie world, I was always pushing those things. And when we got the go-ahead from Japan to push forward with the movie, it was a very small group of us working on it. I was finding partners, Shinobu was talking with Japan and Tom was making sure everything was running in order. Because, again, this wasn’t just a movie – this was something that could affect our whole brand.”
Kalinske was fine with kids’ cartoons, but worried about a movie’s potential to hurt the Sonic brand. He felt 1987’s Masters of the Universe had done nothing to help the struggling He-Man toyline, and he was personally instrumental in cancelling the proposed Barbie movie that Edward Pressman wanted to make.
“Our worry was always about the actress,” Kalinske recalls. “Not who would play her, but how she would be outside of the movie. If she gets drunk in public or gets involved in drugs, that hurts the Barbie brand.”
That fear wasn’t just hypothetical but was playing out in realtime for Sega’s main competitor, Nintendo, whose Super Mario Bros. movie suffered a horrible set report from the Los Angeles Times in which cast members publicly denounced the film — contributing to a box office flop and critical disaster. “Around this time, Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat got some pretty lousy movies made based on them, and Super Mario Bros. wasn’t a good movie either,” Kalinske says.
“And those were good brands! There is really is that fear that a bad movie could potentially hurt your brand. The Sonic brand was strong enough to probably withstand it, but there is that fear.”
For Risley, the failure of Super Mario Bros. did nothing to change Sega’s course. “By 1994 we were going full steam with the movie. Mario Bros. failing was never an issue for us. And having come from a film and TV background at Marvel, look at Howard the Duck. It all depends on the timing of the movie, the look of the movie, whether you go live action or animation. It was never an issue for us.”
Through MGM and Trilogy, Risley and Sega approached screen writer Richard Jeffries to pitch them his take on a Sonic the Hedgehog movie. Jeffries had two screenwriting credits to his name — horror movies Scarecrows and The Vagrant — but he had been doing a lot of work behind the scenes of movies, including script fixes and initial drafts, and had been working together with Risley during her time at Marvel on a proposed adaptation of Silver Surfer.
Image: The Video Game Art Archive
The idea to do a movie based on Sonic seemed to have come at the perfect time for Sega. While the company was riding high on the success of the Mega Drive, it was looking towards its next home console, being developed under the code name ‘Saturn’. Production had begun work in 1992 and the first version of the system had debuted at Tokyo Toy Show in June of 1994.
Along with the Saturn, Sega was also developing a brand new Sonic the Hedgehog game called Sonic X-treme, and Sega wanted the title to be released in conjunction with the movie. “They were trying to co-ordinate the two and make the two compatible,” Jeffries recalls.
After spending a day with the Sega Technical Institute and speaking with Sonic The Hedgehog lead programmer Yuji Naka — who was working on his latest project NiGHTS Into Dreams — Jeffries went away to write his treatment, which he handed back to Sega titled Sonic the Hedgehog: Wonders of the World in May 1995.
The treatment opens with a 12-year old boy named Josh Pinski reading out his school paper on a test pilot named Sonic who was killed in a plane explosion while attempting to break speed barriers. However, this paper isn’t actually finished and Josh is reading it to the class from memory — and his teacher tells him to finish the paper by the morning or else his parents will be called in.
Jeffries describes Josh as “an awkward kid at the most awkward age enduring the most awkward time of his life. His parents recently split up, leaving him in joint custody. Josh feels like a ping-pong ball, bouncing back and forth between two houses, equally ignored by his Mom and Dad… And the worst thing is, Josh always ends up feeling like the whole rotten mess is his fault.”
Josh is picked up from school by his Dad, Hal, who is a smart computer wiz but is currently out of work. “He’s always on the brink of some great discovery, or so he’ll tell you,” the treatment claims. He has recently built an artificial intelligence computer which utilises a unique system of holographic memory which he’s dubbed XRI (eXtremely Radical Intelligence). After dinner Hal rushes out to pursue a lead on some obscure computer part and tells Josh not to touch the XRI.
Though he promises he won’t, of course Josh breaks into the computer and asks it to write his paper on the test pilot Sonic. When the XRI doesn’t recognise the name, Josh plugs in his Sega Saturn and copy of Sonic X-Treme to demonstrate.
The treatment reads, “That’s when odd things begin to happen. Sonic stops responding to the game controller and discovers a will of his own.” As Richard Jeffries described it to me, “These kids work out some hack, where Sonic the Hedgehog steps through the right door and into the real world. So he becomes a renegade from the game world.” Sonic and Josh stand face-to-face, two friends meeting for the first time — described in the treatment as a “3-D CGI guy in the real world.”
Jeffries says in reference to the 3D animation in a live-action film, “There wasn’t a lot of this at the time, but I checked with my friends in the visual effects industry and we figured out a way to make it more practical. At the time it was becoming more practical to make CG characters into the real world.”
Instantly, Sonic’s curiosity gets out of control and the apartment is quickly torn apart. Amid all the chaos, Doctor Robotnik also escapes from the game and howls with delight. “He’s waited years to break out of the game world,” the treatment reads.
“He sprouts his spaceship, blasts out of the apartment and escapes with demented enthusiasm into the real world.” Jeffries adds: “The shape of the story was the boss also works out how to get through the glitch into the real world, and he would wreak havoc on the real world with his henchmen and CG characters.”
Sonic tries to track down Robotnik but gets distracted and confused by the real world. When he jumps onto rooftops, the chimneys break, and when he hits a lamp post it hurts him. He races through traffic and causes car wrecks, and when he tries to impress a girl she scares in terror.
“The real world isn’t ready for a blue hedgehog walking down the street,” the treatment reads. He discovers though that the longer he spends in the real world, the weaker he’s becoming.
Hal returns home to find his apartment destroyed and the XRI broken, and Josh lies, saying it was burglars. Josh’s mother Lisa comes over, and she and Hal get into another argument — with once again Josh being at fault. Lisa takes Josh back to her house, and during the night Sonic tracks Josh down and wakes him up. He’s weakened and exhausted, and while he knows the game world like the back of his hand, the real world is very strange to him.
He tells Josh that he needs to get his energy back, and to do that he needs Chaos Emeralds. Josh and Sonic agree to team up, and together discover that Chaos Emeralds exist in the real world, encased in ordinary-looking rocks. “You just have to know which ones to crack open,” the treatment says. The pair find their first Chaos Emerald and Sonic uses it to recover his strength.
Josh wants to try some, and Sonic gives him a little taste to give Josh super powers – which he uses to writes his whole term paper in thirty seconds! When Josh asks for more, Sonic warns him not to use the power until he can master it.
Across town, Robotnik has taken over an abandoned amusement park and plots to use the power of the Chaos Emeralds to control the real world. He recruits a group of school bullies who he gives cyber-body parts to turn them into Bullibots. These Bullibots then start digging underneath the amusement part to smash every rock to find the one-in-a-million Chaos Emeralds.
The second act of the story sees Sonic and Josh discover the Bullibots to get clues as to Robotnik’s whereabouts. In some good news, his father has got a new job — only it is with Shady Corporation, who are re-opening Ramshackle Amusement Park, now named Botnikland Amusement Park. With Sonic hiding in the boot of Hal’s car, Josh discovers that this amusement park is being run by Robotnik, who has hired Hal to use the XRI to create a virtual reality ride.
The amusement park is a smash success — mainly because kids can go in for free, the candy is free and so is the ice cream. Every kid in town is lining up to get in. But Sonic and Josh snoop around the park and discover that Robotnik is using the ride and Hal’s XRI technology to replace all of the kids with Kinder-Bot robo-clones.
“The real kids are put to work digging under the town, cracking rocks, finding the one-in-a-million Chaos Emerald,” Jeffries writes. “The perfect angel Kinder Bot clones go home with the parents.”
Robotnik’s plan, they learn, is to use the Chaos Emeralds to power the XRI to digitise the natural wonders of the world like the Amazon rainforest and Mount Everest, which he will then recreate in virtual reality so he can charge big money for the world to see them. “Sonic and Josh are dumbfounded. They must stop this evil plan.”
Josh is scared, but Sonic tells him that he has to “stand up for what you believe in and give it everything you’ve got.” There’s a chase scene between Sonic, Josh and the Bullibots, and Sonic uses all of his energy to help Josh escape.
Sonic is captured, and Josh tries to tell Hal and Lisa the truth about Robotnik, the Kinder-Bots, the XRI and Sonic. They of course don’t believe him. Across town the Kinder-Bots return home. “Clone kids who do everything their parents ask: eat peas, clean room [sic], do homework,” the treatment reads. “Josh is horrified by the Kinder-Bot Kids. He knows they are Robotnik’s evil creation. He fears what a terrible world it would be if Robotnik mechanises everything!”
In the third act, Josh hatches a plan to get Robotnik back into the game world, inspired by Sonic’s speech about standing up for what you believe in. As Jeffries describes it, “the plan was Sonic was going to be the bait, and they were going to lure the boss back into the game world. But what happens is they do that, but the kids get sucked into the game world for act three of the story.”
There’s a showdown between Sonic, Josh and Robotnik – with the good guys winning and Robotnik getting away to no doubt come up with a new plan to take over the world. The treatment reads, “Hal, Lisa and Josh step through the vortex. But there’s a sad moment when Sonic decides he must stay behind in the game world. He has to be vigilant against Doctor Robotnik and his nefarious ways. After all, that’s his job.”
The adventure brings Josh, Hall and Lisa closer together, but Hal decides that the XRI is too dangerous to ever use again and asks Josh to put it away for safe keeping. “Josh promises [not to use it again]… but notices on a TV screen nearby: Sonic winks at him, then goes about his gameplay business.”
Jeffries describes it as “a big parting moment where they go their separate ways, apart from you leave that little backdoor in there for a sequel. So they become friends with Sonic and have to go back to their world.”
“I think it was Japan,” says Michealene Risley, when asked why the movie project ended so suddenly. “The small team behind the Sonic games weren’t keen either, but ultimately I think it was Japan that killed this.” Tom Kalinske, who would leave Sega in 1996 following the botched release of the Saturn, wishes they’d had a better launch for the system. “If we had some good software or if we’d had a killer Sonic game like Sonic X-treme, the Saturn may have done better,” he says, while arguing that the movie should have moved forward.
“We liked the idea [of the movie]. Shinobu liked the idea — and if he liked the idea it was going to get done — but it just never happened.”
Pen Densham, who served as producer for Trilogy Entertainment, felt that a breakdown in creativity between themselves and Sega stopped the movie from progressing. “I believe Trilogy tried to formulate a story for the feature,” he recalls. “But they found the origins story for Sonic and the desire to support the game’s originators – it was difficult to find a common ground. We in fact withdrew and re-funded MGM our development fees.”
For Jeffries, it was usual Hollywood politics.
“My feeling at the time – and I could be wrong about this – but the reason movies fall apart between Hollywood and the game world is because each party feels like they should have 75% of the deal. Just on financial terms. But it could be, at Sega, that the focus groups weren’t responding to the evolution of the character, and the heyday of the character was behind them. Maybe they were hoping a movie could help reinvigorate that. But maybe it was a response to where Sonic was headed, and maybe MGM came to that conclusion themselves. I don’t know.”
That would not, one has to say, have been the worst long-term call in the world. Sega’s fall from grace began in the mid 90s and, had this film been made, it would have released in a world where Sonic was yesterday’s 16-bit hero in the era of Playstation cool (and the cancelled Sonic X-Treme wouldn’t have helped either).
“Maybe they thought that the character was flagging and didn’t want to spend $150 million on a movie with animation that will take longer,” ends Jeffries. “Where would Sonic be as an intellectual property by the time the film is released? That’s just pure speculation on my part.”
Comments and script review are taken from Luke Owen’s Lights, Camera, GAME OVER!: How Video Game Movies Get Made, which is available now wherever books are sold.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.