Nickelodeon’s long-running series SpongeBob SquarePants is characterized by sweet, cheery cartoon surrealism. In recounting the bizarre adventures of a happy sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea, it has built a gentle world of nautical nonsense, non-sequiturs, asides, incongruous mixed media inserts, goofball slapstick contortions and silly voices. The show will do anything for a ridiculous sight gag or goofy sound effect, but loves its characters so earnestly and consistently that it rarely devolves into free floating weirdness. At the loveable center is SpongeBob himself. Created by Stephen Hillenburg and voiced by Tom Kenny, he’s one of the all-time great cartoon characters, a source of endless silliness springing forth from a supply of inexhaustible optimism. Even if a story is a dud, I still like this sponge.
In The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, the second big-screen outing for this TV world, the jokes aren’t as dense as they should be. But we’re talking about a cartoon that has been on the air since 1999, hasn’t been in theaters since 2004, and is accustomed to telling stories 10 or 11 minutes long. A bit of franchise fatigue should be expected. It sets in as series regular director Paul Tibbitt and screenwriters Glenn Berger and Jonathan Aibel, of the Alvin and the Chipmunks squeakquels, stretch a thin bit of plot to goof around for over 90 minutes. There’s not much there in terms of emotional investment or compelling story, but at least the time passes largely painlessly. It’s hard to dislike something so bright, chipper, and eager to please, even as I found myself wondering why this story was worth telling at all, let alone outside the confines of the show.
There’s really no reason the movie should work, or be as charming as it often manages to be. The characters aren’t as fresh as they once were, and their new film recycles storylines done better in their first film, and in some of the series’ classic episodes. (There’s even a totally unsuccessful attempt to recreate the magic of “The F.U.N. Song.”) Sponge Out of Water concerns yet another diabolical plot to steal the town of Bikini Bottom’s beloved top-secret Krabby Patty formula, zealously protected by Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) from his tiny megalomaniacal rival restaurateur, Plankton (Mr. Lawrence). It’s up to the loyal Krusty Krab fry cook SpongeBob to save the formula, a process that’s longer and more elaborate than TV would allow, with an epic food fight, angry mobs, magic, and time travel, culminating in a slapstick superhero parody that somehow doesn’t mention Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy.
We get a great deal of hand-drawn zaniness that draws in all the series regulars – dim starfish Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), fussy Squidward (Rodger Bumpass), squirrelly Sandy (Carolyn Lawrence) – and cameos from memorable supporting characters, with quick wordplay and rubbery gags. Eventually, it concludes with the gang washing ashore on the trail of a missing recipe. There on the beach, they interact with live action extras while rendered in 3D CG animation. This sidesteps one of my favorite running jokes in the series, representing SpongeBob out of water as an actual dry sponge on a stick waggled about by an obvious puppeteer. Making him and his friends exaggerated CG things walking around a beach is an okay bit of colorful nonsense, but seems a concession to something more ordinary and predictable than the usual SpongeBob tone.
I didn’t mind it too much, but it goes on far too long. The picture seems a little underpowered, burning bright with engaging zippy randomized cartoonishness, then losing steam the longer it runs. But where else will you see Antonio Banderas play a character named Burger Beard, an exaggerated pirate who just wants to start his own food truck? Or a cosmic dolphin named Bubbles? Or singing seagulls? Or a burger-shortage inspiring full-on Mad Max apocalyptic mob mentality? Or multiple hilarious montage parodies? Or repeated trips through a 2001 time-travel kaleidoscope wormhole set to an original Pharrell song? You’re never exactly sure what’s around the next corner in Sponge Out of Water, as much a sign of its desperation as its inspiration. It could’ve been more, but as a modestly effective bit of harmless superfluous silliness, it’s not so bad.