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SECOND LOOK: Sonic Underground (1999)

Written by Mark Russell

In my last review I looked at Sonic the Hedgehog, better known as “SatAM”, and said it was the best of the animated series based around the iconic video game. Unfortunately, it was canned by ABC and five years passed before Sonic got a new animated series. The end result was the unusual Sonic Underground, a French-American-Canadian production that took the basics of SatAM’s plot and reworked them to involve musical numbers, and Sonic using the power of rock against Dr. Robotnik’s forces. Oh, and Sonic now has a pair of siblings, he is royalty, and is part of an underground rock band. Admittedly, Sonic Underground was the Sonic cartoon I grew up with, but I must take the nostalgia goggles off and take a second look at this show to see whether or not it withstands the test of time.

Sonic Underground was produced by Robby London, a producer and show writer who has an extensive resume in numerous animated series, and wrote the song of the show’s theme song which explained Underground’s story. The series follows the basic plot of SatAM, with Dr. Robotnik (Garry Chalk) conquering the planet Mobius through military might and taxing the aristocrats to his side in return for their lives. Queen Aleena (Gail Webster) was exiled but gave birth to triplets – Sonic, Sonia, and Manic, who were all voiced by Jaleel White using different vocals. Aleena learnt from the local Oracle of Delphius that Robotnik will be defeated when she and her children form the Council of Four. But for some reason, the Oracle tells Aleena that for the prophecy to work, she must separate her children and hide away from them. Yeah, it’s never really explained.

Aleena leaves her kids on doorsteps and years later, the trio meet each other and form an underground rock band called Sonic Underground and become leaders of the Freedom Fighters and beacons of hope in the world against Dr. Robotnik’s oppressive regime. Robotnik himself is aware of the prophecy after the Oracle told him for some reason, and he hires two bounty hunters Sleet and Dingo (Maurice La Marche and Peter Wilds) to track down the hedgehogs and their mother. All the while, Sonic, Sonia, and Manic travel around Mobius looking for their wayward mother or getting into various shenanigans that don’t really have much connecting them to each other. The series had forty episodes in total, and didn’t actually resolve the story. The series wasn’t cancelled. It just ended without a proper conclusion.

The show’s story had a lot of potential, placing Sonic in a new unfamiliar role as a brother was a daring move but a good one, and the stakes were there despite the obvious plotholes. But unfortunately the whole thing is wasted. The series has forty episodes but very few actually focus on the established plot that is repeated in every episode through the theme song. Those plotholes can be a real headscratcher too like the questions around the prophecy: when will the family reunite, why can’t they just come together, why did the Oracle forewarn Robotnik of his defeat, etc. Interestingly, many of the episodes were written by the key writers from SatAM. Ben Hurst and Patricia Allee were summoned to a cattle call of writers by the show’s producers, but ended up becoming main story editors. Len Janson, the brainchild behind the emotional core of SatAM was brought on, writing around eight episodes. The best episodes of the series are the ones written by the those three.

Many elements of the series’ production feel very clunky and inadequate. The animation quality varies on an episodic basis, looking decent in some, and really robotic and cheap. Sonic does not run but rather moves across the screen without any movement and his legs blurred in a blue line of light, as if someone clicked and dragged him across the scene. Some episodes have some baffling animation errors, extremely awful character movements, and at times the characters act like malfunctioning animatronics. Compare the flashy, colourful opening titles to the more cheaper animation in each episode.

Back to the story. Despite having plenty to work with, each episode usually going to a new location and dealing with the one-note characters there. A lot of plot elements are underused. The Roboticizer from SatAM is back, but while it is established that it was used to enslave the poor, we sees people walking around day-to-day without much concern about being roboticized. The Freedom Fighters are virtually non-existent in the series and we only meet a couple of members despite it being a worldwide movement. Aside from Sonic and his siblings, the only other significant members we meet are the resident tactician Cyrus who has a couple of focus episodes, and a mouse named Trevor who keeps getting kidnapped by Robotnik.

Jaleel White provides the voices for Sonic, Sonia, and Manic, each of whom have their own distinct personalities and bounce off each other quite well. Sonic is basically a watered down version of his SatAM persona with all of his negative aspects ballooning and he goes through zero character development. Sonia has a lot of funny moments, but slides back and forth between kickass strategist and whiny diva, and her voice is extremely grating. Manic is the best character in the series, usually being laidback and cool-headed, and has a hard time shedding his former identity as a pickpocket. However, his thievery comes in handy a lot when he has his siblings support, and yet other times when it doesn’t directly benefit them, Sonic and Sonia chew Manic and blatantly insult his upbringing.

The three siblings travel around in their road vehicle and can summon magical instruments from the medallions they wear. Like everything else in the series, they just roll with it and never explain how they work or when and where they were created. The trio all have their own unique abilities and weaponry – Sonic has his super speed and use his guitar as a gun, Sonia can perform Tazmanian Devil-style tornado moves, and Manic can cause earthquakes with his awesome drum set. Going back to Manic for a second, he probably gets the most development and episode focus, and often goes through waves of feeling in inadequate and struggles with his upbringing and being a better person.

The other heroes are mediocre. Tails doesn’t even exist in this universe, Queen Aleena lacks a personality beyond telling aesops at the start of each episode, and the Oracle of Delphius fits the role of the generic eccentric mentor. Knuckles the Echidna (Ian James Corlett) shows up a couple of times, and stays true to the character’s role in the video games as an isolated guardian of the Floating Island and deals with issues whether or not he should remain independent or leave his post to help out the bigger world. Much better then what Sonic Boom has done to Knuckles, turning him into a big dumb idiot who just becomes more embarrassing to watch with each new episode.

Dr. Robotnik is a mixture of his counterparts from Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog and SatAM, but mostly comes off as a buffoonish supervillain who happens to be in charge of a dictatorship. I enjoy Garry Chalk’s performance but it pales in comparison to that of Jim Cummings in SatAM. Sleet and Dingo are my favourite characters in the series, particularly with Sleet’s weird voice and conniving personality, and Dingo’s stupidity and crush on Sonia is amusing. Dingo can be changed into other objects by Sleet using a special remote, so there is usually some chuckles there. The other notable character is Sonia’s fiancé Bartleby (Phil Hayes), a pompous chap who often takes a neutral standing, aiding both the hedgehogs and Robotnik depending on the episode, though he ultimately sides with Sonia at the cost of his luxurious life.

There are some good episodes amongst the forty odd made, most notably the exciting three-parter “Chaos Emerald Crisis”, which involved Dr. Robotnik finding a Chaos Emerald and using it to power his flying fortress. The siblings team up with Knuckles to retrieve it, and things go pretty crazy. Sleet and Dingo steal the emerald, turn on each other, Dingo breaks the emerald which causes its energy to jeopardise Mobius, Sonic has to team up with Robotnik, Knuckles’ grandpa from the comics Athair shows up and sporting a fantastic Sean Connery-styled accent, and the finale involves Dingo fusing with the Chaos Emerald and becoming a giant monster. It is pretty cool, exciting stuff. One of the better episodes. Another favourite involves the siblings being sent to a parallel world where they became the badguys and Robotnik is a friendly rebel. There isn’t much original here, but I do like that Sonic and co. show their counterparts the misery they have brought upon their subjects and reduce them to tears.

Perhaps it is from my experience from watching anime where character development carries through each episode, but Underground really forgets to carry lessons the characters learn to the next one. One episode called “Sonic Tonic” involves Sonic being extremely impatient and bragging around his siblings to the point they drink a special tonic made by Robotnik that will give them super speed at the cost of their feet swelling up shortly after. Sonic realises what they have done but rather blame himself for his own stupidity, but instead that potential act of understanding is not even focused on. Other episodes can have the siblings overcoming a personal issue, only to forget about them in the next episode. And it doesn’t help that the series was aired in the completely wrong order. Heck, the DVD box is the same. This series really is a mess in all departments. But I still have yet to address the most infamous aspect of the series. The music and songs.

I will admit that I do like some of the songs in the show, finding them catchy and memorable, but overall most of the songs are forgetful. However, my issue is that the musical numbers are the focus and main marketing point of the show but they feel shoved in. Every single episode has to halt their pacing to throw in a song that lasts ninety seconds to two minutes, taking away from each episode’s precious length. Some songs work if they fit into the narrative and express the issues the characters are feeling, though some that don’t follow are still catchy. The songs are performed not by Jaleel White but rather three vocalists including fellow voice actor Sam Vincent, Louise Vallance, and Tyley Ross. While they do a decent job, the singers sound nothing like Sonic, Sonia, and Manic. Another issue is that the songs are accompanied by music videos that essentially involve recycling footage from earlier in the episode and the occasional use of special effects.

In conclusion, Sonic Underground is a mixed bag of a thousand or so ideas thrown into one that doesn’t work as a marketable show or something Sonic should be in. The fact that the show officially ended without resolving the story it set up is a very stupid outcome. Ian Flynn, writer for the Archie Comics’ Sonic series, originally planned to write a conclusion for the series, but that was shot down by Sega. However, there are some positives I can find. The voice acting is good, the characters can be charming, I love Sleet and Dingo, I enjoy the comedy, and some of the music is pleasant to the ears. I do not consider Underground to be the worst cartoon Sonic has been in, but it probably could have been better.

Could Sonic Underground have been better? Can putting a character in an unusual setting work? Sound off in the comments section below or visit us on Twitter.

About the author

Mark Russell