This week at the movies, we’ve got a blue speedster (Sonic the Hedgehog, starring James Marsden and the voice of Ben Schwartz), a budding romance (The Photograph, starring Issa Rae and the voice of LaKeith Stanfield), a fateful fight-or-flight fiasco (Downhill, starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and a dangerous getaway (Fantasy Island, starring Lucy Hale and Michael Peña). What are the critics saying?
Over the course of the past couple decades and change, movies based on video games have earned a reputation as subpar entertainment, to be generous. Critically speaking, things trended a bit upward in 2018 with Rampage (51%) and the Tomb Raider reboot (52%), and 2019 saw the genre’s first two Fresh entries in Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (69%) and The Angry Birds Movie 2 (73%), which currently sit at #2 and #1, respectively, on our list of all video game movies ranked. With that context in mind, we come to 2020 and Sonic the Hedgehog, an animated/live-action hybrid adventure in which the titular Sega hero (voiced by Ben Schwartz) travels to Earth from his home planet, befriends a local sheriff (James Marsden), and attempts evade capture by the nefarious Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey), who hopes to harness Sonic’s power for evil. The film endured a minor controversy when its first trailer premiered and longtime fans cried foul at Sonic’s subtly creepy character design, but after the folks behind the film pushed its release date back and reworked the visuals, most moviegoers seemed optimistic. As it turns out, those moviegoers weren’t entirely misguided, as critics say Sonic the Hedgehog is mostly wholesome family fun, with a lively performance from Carrey that harkens back to his 1990s heyday. The jokes may not all land, but there are a lot of them that come at you, and while the rest of the film largely caters to a younger audience, there’s enough in there for adults to ensure a trip to the theater won’t be entirely mind-numbing.
Being that Friday is Valentine’s Day, it’s only appropriate that at least one of the big releases is a romance. This year, that romance is The Photograph, which stars Issa Rae as Mae, a museum curator whose estranged photographer mother suddenly dies, leaving clues to her storied life behind for her daughter. As Mae begins to pick up the pieces, a journalist named Michael (LaKeith Stanfield) shows up looking to write a story about her mother, and the two of them find they share an undeniable connection. Critics say The Photograph, which cuts between Mae’s relationship with Michael and her mother’s own love story in the past, is a quiet, soulful romance that explores the ways in which one generation’s decisions can echo into the next. While Rae and Stanfield are arguably better known for their comedic work, the reviews point out their easy chemistry as dramatic leads, with a solid supporting cast — which includes Lil Rel Howery, Teyonah Paris, and Chelsea Peretti — helping to flesh out the narrative. Some may find the film a tad languid for their tastes, and the storytelling may not be quite clever enough to offer many surprises, but The Photograph rests on the strength of its stars, who all do admirable work.
On the flipside of The Photograph, we have Downhill, which charts the steady breakdown of a marriage after a near tragedy. Said couple is played by Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who play Pete and Billie Staunton, an American couple with two kids who travel to Europe for an Alpine ski vacation. When a controlled avalanche set off by the resort induces a momentary panic, Pete flees the scene and abandons his family, causing a rift between him and Billie that forces them to reexamine their relationship. Directed and adapted by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Way Way Back), Downhill is an English-language remake of the 2014 Swedish dark comedy Force Majeure, and critics say what could and should have been a fantastic reinterpretation is merely a pale imitation of its predecessor. While Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus have proven in the past that they can handle subtler material, reviews say Ferrell’s character in particular seems to have lost the edge that made his existential dilemma in the original film so palpable, and the overall softening of the themes at play undermines the satire at its core. In the end, Downhill is a safer, watered-down rendition of the story, neither as darkly funny nor as poignantly subversive as its Swedish counterpart, and it’s likely to go down as something of a missed opportunity.
For anyone too young to remember, Fantasy Island began as a television series that ran from 1977 to 1984, centering around a mystical vacation destination where visitors could live out their fantasies… for a price. The proprietor of the island, one mysterious Mr. Roarke (played by Ricardo Montalbán), mostly used the fantasies as a means of teaching his guests valuable moral lessons, and while the admittedly Faustian premise rarely turned deadly, there was often a hint of menace in its Twilight Zone-esque storylines. All of that said, leave it to Blumhouse to take that premise and put a horror spin on it in this week’s Fantasy Island, in which Michael Peña’s Mr. Roarke plays host to a group of young visitors who get a lot more than they bargained for when they disembark “ze plane” in hopes of fulfilling their wildest fantasies. Things don’t quite work out according to plan, of course, and their jaunty, indulgent adventures quickly take a turn for the horrific. We’d love to tell you what the critics thought of Fantasy Island, but reviews won’t start pouring in until Friday morning, so in the meantime, guess that Tomatometer.
Also Opening This Week In Limited Release