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Sonic Underground — A Twentieth Anniversary Retrospective

Sonic Underground was a weird cartoon and certainly the weirdest of Sonic the Hedgehog’s animated library. Its premise made little sense, and it is perhaps best known for its inclusion of music videos. Yet, there is still charm to be found in this series. Twenty years on since its debut in 1999, let’s reminisce, retrospect, and rock out to Sonic Underground’s peculiar legacy, and where it left a mark on Sonic’s history.

Sonic Underground was the third and final Sonic animated series produced by DiC Entertainment, after Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog (“SatAM”). From what I understand, the animated series was conceived to promote Sega’s gloriously doomed Dreamcast, though there is little in common with the console, aside from a rather short life. At one point, Underground was intended to be a continuation of SatAM, but sadly this was not meant to be.

The show was conceived by Robby London, an animation producer with a long impressive resume behind him. He was a producer on shows like Captain Planet, Street Sharks, G.I. Joe, and the first two Sonic cartoons. Wishing to include music as a major part of the new series, London and others came up with a rather bonkers premise. Sonic would continue his usual battles against Dr. Robotnik, but would have two siblings, be a prince, and be part of a rock band. It was certainly a bizarre concept for a show, but compared to the wafer thin stories Sonic Team is making for their games lately, at least Underground had some ambition.

Television screenwriters were invited to a cattle call to write for the series. Amongst them were SatAM writers Ben Hurst, Pat Allee, and Len Jason, who would become key players in Underground’s development. The music was composed by Mike Piccirillo, who has his own history working on many animated series. Jaleel White returned to reprise his role as Sonic, but also voiced his newfound siblings, Sonia and Manic.

The premise borrowed elements from SatAM, with Dr. Robotnik (Garry Chalk) conquering the planet Mobius, roboticizing anyone who gets in his way. The kingdom of Mobotropolis is taken over, its true ruler, Queen Aleena (Gail Webster) exiled with her newborn triplets, Sonic, Sonia, and Manic. Aleena goes to speak to the Oracle of Delphius (Maurice LaMarche), a wise but kind of shady seer, who resembles a scaly anteater (or Cyril Sneer of The Raccoons, as our own Scott Meridew once compared him to). The Oracle tells Aleena she and her grown up kids will form the Council of Four, through which they will defeat Dr. Robotnik. Why and how? Just one of many set ups that go unanswered and unresolved.

Forced on the run, her three children are separated. Sonic is raised by a middle class couple who are tragically killed in a fire caused by Robotnik. He is then raised by his Uncle Chuck, the only character from SatAM to crossover, and both act as freedom fighters against Dr. Robotnik. Sonia is raised to be a lady of society, engaged to a snobbish mink named Bartleby (Phil Hayes), while Manic was raised by criminals to be a street thief. All three siblings have a talent for music, eventually crossing paths in a nightclub and forming a band.

Sonic blows up a power plant and it is here Dr. Robotnik recognises him as Aleena’s child, realising the prophecy is playing out as foretold. He declares war on the Freedom Fighters, hiring two bounty hunters named Sleet and Dingo (LaMarche and Peter Wilds) to track down and arrest the three hedgehogs. The Oracle reveals the truth to Sonic, Sonia, and Manic: their loved ones are roboticized, and the trio set off to fulfill the prophecy and find their mother. And this all happens in the space of the twenty-minute pilot!

The pacing of the first episode, if not the whole show, is so rushed. Such a setup needed at least three episodes to properly work. Sonic Underground consisted of forty episodes, which should have been plenty of time to tell a decent story, and it was wasted. Every episode reminds us of the story and stakes via the theme song, but the all-encompassing wild goose chase to find Queen Aleena is never actually resolved. The family never reunite, the Council of Four is not formed, Dr. Robotnik isn’t defeated. There’s no climax or conclusion. SatAM only got twenty-six episodes and it was able to wrap up its story more or less. The show just ended without conclusion or much hollering for continuation. Why bother set up a plot thread if it is never to be resolved?

Even with forty episodes, little is done to further push along the protagonists’ mission. Seventy-five percent of the series consists of standalone filler. The siblings go somewhere in search of Aleena, meet one-shot characters, get into a situation that requires a 90-second musical number, they fight the bad guys and call it a day. Occasionally, there are some progressive episodes for characters such as Bartleby, while others tackle interesting subjects, such as one featuring a bogus scientist claiming he has made an Anti-Roboticizer.

Sonic is essentially his SatAM counterpart, sans any of the character growth and maturity. He maintains his cocky, shoot-from-the-hip personality, but never really undergoes any significant changes. In “Sonic Tonic”, Sonia and Manic become fed up of Sonic’s constant bragging about his speed, that they drink a tonic made by Dr. Robotnik, allowing them to gain temporary super speed, but then causes their feet to swell. Does Sonic realise he is at fault for belittling them? Nope. He instead chastises them for their behaviour, and learns nothing. Each episode tends to reset the universe, with whatever lessons being learnt forgotten by the next adventure.

Sonia gets slightly better treatment. She starts as being quite the diva, a germaphobe, and is quite haughty and snobbish, due to her background. Luckily, she mellows out over time, being a loving, dedicated freedom fighter, while still being a bit of a dreamer when it comes to acting the part of a princess. She faces a pivotal, personal decision in “Come Out Wherever You Are”, where Sonia must choose between duty and going to a debutante ball. It is one of the better episodes, where Sonia has a hard choice to make, putting her at odds with her brothers, though it does bring out the rare flash of depth from Sonic.

Manic is by far the best character in the series. He is rather laidback, but crafty, often the voice of reason between his siblings, and always pulls through. He could be seen as the Ron Weasley of the show, coming from a poor background and has a lot of self-confident issues, but always pulls through to defy expectations. He looks for a place to belong and to outgrow his status as a thief, but won’t throw away his masterful skills if it benefits others. On the downside, Sonic and Sonia are prone to disapproving of Manic’s thievery, unless it benefits them exclusively.

The Freedom Fighters are present, but we only meet a couple – Cyrus the Lion (Ian James Corlett), the resident tech guy, who undergoes his own decent characterization. His father was captured by Dr. Robotnik, who promised to free him if Cyrus spied on his own friends. The other member is Trevor (Matt Hill), a mouse who dresses like a hippie, and is prone to getting captured. Knuckles the Echidna (Brian Drummond) shows up in a supporting role, very close to his game characterization, even if his voice doesn’t quite suit his personality.

Then, we have the bad guys who are the most entertaining part of the series. Dr. Robotnik is meant to be like his menacing SatAM counterpart, but shares the buffoonery of his AoSTH cousin. Garry Chalk gives a fun performance as Robotnik, previously voicing Grounder in AoSTH, and has been spotted in the 2020 film. The writing does take Robotnik’s reign in a different direction, being an autocratic governor who has high society fund his empire in exchange for their own lives. He only appears to roboticize enemies of the state rather than just everybody. Sleet and Dingo are an absolute delight, being the Scratch and Grounder of Underground. Sleet’s conniving matched with Dingo’s dim-wittedness makes for some great comedic chemistry between them.

For all of its curiosities, Sonic Underground is like an amalgamation of different Sonic continuities. It is set on Mobius; a setting shared with its animated predecessors, the Archie Comics, and the British Fleetway comics. This would be the last western Sonic cartoon until Sonic Boom, and was made in a period where Sega was trying to lay down their own, singular canon of the Sonic universe. Knuckles’ great-grandpa Athair, originating from Archie Comics, shows up in the series. This was the only time a character introduced in the comic books immigrated to the cartoons. In a way, this was the last hurrah of the west’s take on Sonic before everything was homogenised together. Fleetway would be cancelled shortly after, and Archie Comic’s long-lasting comic would be destroyed by a damning lawsuit and a continuity reboot. Sonic Underground itself was placed within the multiverse of Archie’s comics, keeping it at least alive until the reboot and literal destruction of the Sonic multiverse.

Of course, the music was Sonic Underground’s most notorious facet. Once every episode, the story would grind to a halt as a ninety second music video played out. These songs, mostly rock and pop numbers, vaguely related to each episode’s plot. Pausing the entire plot each episode in favour of these poorly edited, often cringeworthy music videos really didn’t sell the series. Jaleel White didn’t sing during the numbers, with Sam Vincent, Louise Vallance, and Tyley Ross standing in during the songs. Strangely though, the vocals often come off as flat, and the substitute vocalists sound nothing like the hedgehogs. Still, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Some of the songs are legitimately catchy, including the theme song, and other personal favourites, including “Someday”, “When Tomorrow Comes”, “I Can Do That For You”, and “Fastest Thing Alive”.

For all of my critiques of Sonic Underground, there remains a deep affection for it. The plot was jumbled and unresolved, the animation was often stiff, and the music being equivalent to playing a round of darts, but it still entertained me as a child. I found the premise engaging, even if it was left with no conclusion, the characters were enjoyable, and some of the songs still exist on my phone as MP3s. Sleet and Dingo are amongst my favourite characters in the franchise, akin to Team Rocket in terms of villainous banter and buffoonery. A part of me longs for the series to actually be resolved, but unless any fan comics exist out there, I know it won’t happen.

Ian Flynn, comic book writer of both the Archie and IDW Comics, actually planned to address Sonic Underground’s ending in a comic storyline. Unfortunately, events beyond Flynn’s control left his plans on the shelf, never to come to light. It is a sad end to Sonic Underground, which never really earned the same level of recognition and attention as Sonic’s other animated series. I still say it is better than Sonic Boom, but that show had a lot going for it in hindsight. This would be Jaleel White’s last performance as Sonic, until reprising the role in a live action short film made by Blue Core Studios.

Sonic Underground remains a weird cartoon, with a lot of potential that wasn’t properly handled for whatever reasons. Turning Sonic the Hedgehog into Alvin and the Chipmunks was a change of pace after SatAM, and sort of tied into Sonic being a radical character even after the gimmick had aged. It isn’t the best cartoon, but it certainly isn’t the worst, let alone the most stupid thing Sega did to the Blue Blur.

Do you have fond memories of Sonic Underground? Which is your favourite Sonic cartoon? Leave a comment below, or on our Twitter!

About the author

Mark Russell