Sega's visions of game console domination may have ended with the Dreamcast, but their mascot remains indestructible. Sonic the Hedgehog is still rolling along at top speed, with new video games, cartoons, comic books, and toys. My daughter, age seven, enjoys all of these, especially the ones that cost the most money.
One of the more unusual franchise products was "Sonic Underground," the third Sonic cartoon and the last to be produced by the animation studio DiC. Premiering on the now-defunct UPN network in August 1999 and lasting for one forty-episode season, "Sonic Underground" radically retooled the Sonic story, a sort of alternate-universe adventure for the hero. Here, Sonic and siblings Manic and Sonia discover they are the children of Queen Aleana, former ruler of Mobius who was ousted by the evil Dr. Robotnik; the kids were raised by separate adoptive families and have only now discovered each other, and their secret past. Using the magic medallions left behind by their mother (medallions which turn into weapons and/or musical instruments), the trio join forces to lead a rebellion against Robotnik. And yes, they also start a rock band.
Rebooting the entire franchise was a bold risk, and the show's first few episodes are a testament to how quickly children can pick up on such wildly overstuffed mythologies. Of course, "Underground" isn't quite as complicated as it sounds - it boils down to "on a bad planet ruled by a bad guy, Sonic and pals fight back" - but this new angle helps keep Sonic out of a rut, story-wise.
Of course, this being a mid-level cartoon, some rut is to be expected. The scripts stick to a rather basic formula, in which Sonic and pals (all three voiced quite well by Jaleel White) outwit Robotnik's numbskull henchmen, use some flashy super powers (Sonic's super-speed obviously being the most notable) to beat the villains' robot army, and then sing a song. This is unmemorable, generic adventure, too repetitive, too loud, and too flimsy, with limp jokes, obnoxious characters and mediocre cost-cutting animation. Although my daughter ate it up like crazy, so there's that.
The real make-it-or-break-it moment comes from all the music. Every episode includes one jingly pop tune, late-90s versions of what kids might find rockin'. And while the songs haven't begun to date themselves yet (thanks mainly to a decision to use a wide variety of song styles and genres throughout), they're still in that particular zone where young kids will love them and parents will find them insufferable. If you've ever sat through an "Alvin and the Chipmunks" cartoon, you know what I mean. (Indeed, "Underground" was partially inspired by the 80s-era "Alvin," one of DiC's biggest successes.)
The theme song, meanwhile, is overblown silliness at its most extreme, recapping the convoluted backstory with a flair for hard rock sincerity, ultimately sounding like Tenacious D performing the music from an 80s toy commercial. Which lends the series a certain goofy charm, but still. Oh my. (Click here for a peek at the opener.)
While many Sonic fans did not take too well to all the changes, preferring the original "Sonic" cartoon to this stranger, sometimes darker, sometimes sillier incarnation, the series did win a small but loyal cult following. I fall more on the side of disappointment - for all the cleverness that went into crafting an all-new backstory, the episodes themselves are uninspired - but acknowledge the simple fact that it scores well with its target audience.
Shout! Factory has collected the first twenty episodes in a set they're simply calling "Sonic Underground." This isn't the first time Shout! has opted not to label a set "volume one," although the back of the box is quick to inform the customer that this is not the complete series. Sadly, this set does not include the three-episode story arc that featured uncredited voice work from - and I am not making this up - Sean Connery. That surreal experience will have to wait for Volume Two.
The four discs featured in the set are housed in two slimline cases, which fit into a slick cardboard case. The episodes are spread over the first three discs, with most special features located on the third disc. The fourth disc is a CD; more on that below.
The half-hour episodes included in this set are:
Disc One: "Beginnings (Origins, Pt. 1)", "Getting to Know You (Origins, Pt. 2)", "Harmony or Something (Origins, Pt. 3)", "To Catch a Queen", "Mobodoon", "The Price of Freedom", "Underground Masquerade", and "Tangled Webs".
Disc Two: "The Deepest Fear", "Who Do You Think You Are?", "Last Resort", "Come Out Wherever You Are", "Winner Fakes All", "A Hedgehog's Home Is Her Castle", "Artifact", and "Bug!".
Disc Three: "Sonic Tonic", "Friend or Foe", "Head Games", and "When in Rome...".
Video & Audio
Presented in the original 1.33:1 broadcast format, all twenty episodes look sparkling here, with colors that pop and clean, crisp lines never bogged down with digital artifacting, which is notable considering the heavy use of animated motion throughout. Grain is minimal. The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is a simple affair, deftly handling all the music the episodes toss us. No subtitles are available.
Each disc contains a set of music videos, which are essentially scenes from each episode containing that show's song.
Disc Three kicks off with "Developing the Underground" (7:20), in which executive producer Robby London details the history and creation of the show. Most interesting is London's discussion of why this series, like most cartoons, did not wrap up its storylines by the final episode.
"Songs from the Underground" (8:53) goes into greater depth regarding the series' music, with London and songwriter/scorer Mike Piccirillo talking about just how you go about crafting a sixty-second pop song for a cartoon.
"Storyboard-To-Screen: Opening Titles" (1:03) is just what it sounds like, a look at the storyboards for the show's opening. "The Art of Mobius" (0:57) is a slideshow revealing the lushly detailed backgrounds created for the series. And a collection of "Original Concept Art" (8:22 total) compares the character and vehicle sketches with the final product.
Disc Four is the CD "Sonic Underground: The Greatest Hits," containing the show's theme song and seven other tunes, each of which range from one to one-and-a-half minutes long. At that length, I'm not sure why they couldn't squeeze all the songs onto the disc (perhaps these were the only full recordings available?), but fans will likely appreciate the effort. The songs included on this CD are: "Sonic Underground Main Title", "Let's Do It to It", "I Wish I Could Go Faster", "Where There's a Will, There's a Way", "Mummy Wrap", "The Mobius Stomp", "We're the Sonic Underground", and "Lady Liberty".
Shout! Factory remains one of the key go-to studios for DVD releases of retro cartoons, as their "Sonic Underground" set once more reveals the serious effort they put in to even the most average of programs. Fans of the show will be delighted by the top notch transfers, the CD, and the interviews, and to them, I give this package a Recommended rating. For the rest of you, however, the show itself doesn't quite impress, so if you're interested in seeing how the character was reworked for this short-lived series, I suggest you simply Rent It first.