For a property with the most threadbare concept imaginable (he’s an undersea creature who works at a fast food restaurant, has a pet snail, and loves “jelly-fishing”), “SpongeBob SquarePants” has been something of a cultural juggernaut, airing nearly 200 episodes (comprised of 360 11-minute segments), inspiring theme park attractions and Thanksgiving Day floats, and selling untold millions in merchandise. Amazingly, this week sees the release of the second “SpongeBob SquarePants” feature film (nearly 11 years after “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie“), this one given the ungainly title “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water.” With so much ground already covered, this new film suggests that the only place left for SpongeBob and his friends to go is into our world. The results are typically loony, but you can’t help but feel like the franchise is getting a little fatigued. Certainly there’s more than just living in a pineapple under the sea?
The film starts out with a prolonged live action sequence starring Antonio Banderas as a bearded pirate (his name is Burger Beard) who treks to a jungle island to retrieve a book that tells the story of SpongeBob and his pals. Burger Beard is after the Krabby Patty, the most beloved food item in all of Bikini Bottom. When the formula goes missing, the town, and all of its inhabitants (including Mr. Krabs, Squidward, and Patrick) are thrown into chaos. One minute, it’s an idyllic undersea community, the next, it’s a post-apocalyptic warzone. As Mr. Krabs says, wryly, “I hope you like leather.” After SpongeBob and Plankton, who has always had his eye on the Krusty Krab recipe, are accused of swiping the formula, the various characters are brought to our world, in glorious 3D animation, and forced to battle the villainous pirate for the future of Bikini Bottom. The plot has a way of lurching forward every 20 minutes or so after bouts of inactivity, until finally a feature-length 90-minute runtime has been achieved (the last act or so is a mixture of live action and animation, a la “Who Framed Roger Rabbit“). Sometimes you get the sense that the filmmakers (led by animation director Paul Tibbitt and live-action director Mike Mitchell) only have a cursory understanding of where the characters are supposed to go and what they’re supposed to do and the audience is just required to go with it.
With a lead like SpongeBob SquarePants (once again voiced by Tom Kenny), a certain amount of aimlessness is okay. He’s a character who is cheery and determined, optimistic almost to a fault, and so watching him bounce around can be charming in and of itself. It helps, too, that so many of the characters, primarily Squidward (Rodger Bumpass) and Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown), are sourpusses, which makes his jubilance even more infectious. Even when the movie treads water, SpongeBob is a ray of hopelessly enjoyable sunshine.
‘Sponge Out of Water’ works best, however, when the entire movie warps around SpongeBob’s sensibilities. There has always been a gently psychedelic nature to “SpongeBob SquarePants,” from the sheer frequency of the jokes to the design aesthetic, which feels like the product of a questionable Brian Wilson acid trip. But this new movie takes things to even more bizarre territories, with a time travel sequence (that introduces Squidward’s dinosaur ancestor), a scene that mimics the “Stargate” sequence from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a moment where we actually explore SpongeBob’s nightmarishly colorful brain, and the introduction of Bubbles, some kind of hyper-intelligent, godlike space dolphin that is beautifully animated, via stop motion, by Screen Novelties (“Robot Chicken,” “Morel Orel“). Even the new Pharrell songs are far out to a degree that is almost uncomfortable (“Squeeze Me,” really?) And you thought “Strange Magic” was weird.
It’s during these interludes that ‘Sponge Out of Water’ really comes to life in a way that seems fresh and new. The final act, with the 3D animation and live action elements, will undoubtedly be the most divisive part of the movie, but for my money, it’s also one of the best. Part of this has to do with the fact that the big screen animation is almost identical to what you see on basic cable any day of the week (even “The Simpsons Movie” tried to add texture and shading in new and interesting ways). The fact that the traditionally animated images are given stereophonic three-dimensional treatment doesn’t add as much visual oomph as you’d expect. But with the 3D section and the stop-motion space dolphin, the aesthetic is disrupted and given fresh life. If the movie had even more of these types of sequences (what about an entire scene rendered via paper cut-outs or something even more abstract?), then it would have been infinitely more fun and enjoyable.
As it stands, “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” is a mild lark. It’s odd, off-the-wall, and has enough jokes and gags that if you’re forced to take your little one to the theater, you won’t spend the entire time looking at your watch or planning your escape. But it would be disingenuous to say that the franchise isn’t showing its age, because it is. This is a property that has been around for nearly 15 years. That’s a long time for any children’s show to stick around but it feels even longer thanks to the relatively simplistic nature of the material and the fact that it has been marketed and merchandised to death. This isn’t just the case of an unnecessary sequel, since everything after the first season of the television series was probably unnecessary. No, this is something altogether unique, a cash-grab so after-the-fact that it might as well double as a public service announcement to those without small children that the property is, in fact, alive and well and functioning at the highest levels of corporate synergy. Even as a mostly bloodless exercise, there’s still enough out there nuttiness in “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” to appreciate and enjoy (seriously — that dolphin). This animated movie isn’t about anything, really, so don’t look for morals or thematic undercurrents. But even at its most mundane, it’s still pretty trippy. [B-]