If recent history has taught us anything about asking questions of the general public, it’s this: don’t do it. Brexit, Trump, the continued popularity of Ed Sheeran – this is what happens when the general public get their teeth stuck in.
But this week, those teeth clamped down on Sonic The Hedgehog and his own, weirdly human teeth. Adult babies of every stripe are up in arms about the way the anthropomorphic rodent has been redesigned for his feature film debut. Indeed, our own Tom Connick ranted about it right here on NME, revealing a concerning fixation on Sonic’s bum cheeks.
Every time you put something out to the internet, you can expect a range of reactions. Some people will love it, and they will shout about it. Most people will think it’s just fine, like most things in life, and say nothing about it. But a small group of people will REALLY HATE IT and shout REALLY LOUDLY ABOUT IT. In the echo chamber of Twitter, the hate can become deafening.
And so it is that, following days of backlash since the reveal of the first trailer, Jeff Fowler, the director of the Sonic The Hedgehog film, is going back to the drawing board and has promised to tweak the character design.
Before I carry on: some caveats. Sonic The Hedgehog, it must be said, is unlikely to be a film classic. It most likely won’t be a patch on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the greatest cartoons-‘n’-humans film of all time (fact). Getting annoyed about a Sonic The Hedgehog movie not being quite right is a bit like being angry your dinner for it being cooked by you instead of Michelle Roux Jr. It is what it is. It’s a film based on a video game about a fast hedgehog.
But the decision to bow to the pressure is an interesting one, because what we’ve just witnessed is the world’s biggest focus group in action. Typically, focus groups are intended to make a product appeal to as many people as possible, and accordingly, products that have been focus grouped end up anodyne and safe and far from the vision of the creative or creatives who first conceived it.
If Radiohead had focus grouped ‘OK Computer’ the feedback would have been that it’s a “bit glum” and could they consider putting a few happy tunes on it. If The Smiths’s ‘The Queen Is Dead’ had been focus grouped, a bunting-wafter from Middle Sodbury would have said they found the title offensive and had it changed to ‘The Queen Is A Hard Working Woman And We All Love Her Very Much’.
Twitter is not to be used as a focus group. It’s a place where extreme opinions drown out moderate ones. The people power implied in this super-fast U-turn have implications for all creatives: the more your audience shout, the more you must listen. Trust in vision is what separates the maverick from the mediocre, and given that today’s pop charts are mostly populated by the kind of normals you might find browsing IKEA on a Sunday, we’ve got quite enough mediocre right now.
We’re also robbing ourselves of tomorrow’s cult curios and fabulous failures. People complaining about Sonic might be wise to remember the Super Mario Brothers Movie, a 1993 flop that missed the mark so horrifically you suspect it may have been directed by King Koopa himself. But it exists as a totem of crapness, an endurance-watch, and a cultural curio. See also: Garbage Pail Kids, or Howard: A New Breed Of Hero, a pre-MCU Marvel film so terrible that they changed the title from Howard The Duck for its UK release in the hope that audiences wouldn’t realise it was about a duck. They did, and as a result there was no audience.
Fact is, everyone whinging about Sonic hasn’t seen the film yet. Maybe – maybe –it’s a towering work of genius. More likely, it’s roadkill. But if it is a stinker, well, we now only have ourselves to blame.
As for the director? He’s just proven himself spineless. Ironic.