The world’s most popular sea sponge for the last 20 years in a row, the ever-upbeat SpongeBob SquarePants is back, spongier than ever, and eager to give us a brief yet slaphappy reprieve from the collective sogginess of the last 12 months. Not that the osmotic optimist ever really went away; a while has passed since SpongeBob’s previous feature-length adventure, but the Nickelodeon show that made him an icon among kids and stoners alike is still going strong despite the death of creator Stephen Hillenburg in 2018.
Still, two decades is a long time in sponge years, and even basal metazoa who live in pineapples under the sea and earn their parent companies billions of dollars in licensing deals aren’t immune to the pressures of a superficial industry that only tends to care about what’s above the surface. In other words, SpongeBob has gotten some “work” done. And he’s not alone. In fact, literally every single creature (and building!) in the benthic town of Bikini Bottom has received the same expensive procedure: A full-body 3D-oplasty.
Still, it has to be said that the characters who came out the other side in one piece have never looked better. A bit plastic perhaps, but in a tactile and ultra-expressive way that owes more to the living toy aesthetic of “The LEGO Movie” than it does the “screw the children, serve the shareholders” ghoulishness of something like “Scoob!.”
It helps that “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” evens out its glossy new sheen by staying true to the franchise’s spirit, as writer/director Tim Hill (“The War with Grandpa”) soaks up an exuberant yet typically deranged adventure that cobbles together a wacky mess of sea detritus into something that vaguely resembles a story; for better or worse, “SpongeBob” devotees will feel right at home. Aside from its style, this is mighty familiar stuff for a movie that starts with an explanation of Poseidon’s skincare routine, ends with an undersea karaoke contest, and pauses in the middle for a second act pitstop involving Danny Trejo as a flesh-eating cowboy pirate zombie.
Impressive as it is that these characters still haven’t been wrung out to dry, there’s no denying that some of the jokes are waterlogged with the same kind of “does it really matter anymore?” energy that older fans might recognize from the last 20 seasons of “The Simpsons.” But comfort food always tastes better when it’s not secretly pining for a Michelin star. “Sponge on the Run” sprints by too fast to dwell on the moments when it runs out of breath, and the mad science that Hillenburg first experimented with on “Rocko’s Modern Life” still draws from such a textured palette of sweet insanity that you can’t help but keep watching. Also — and this is very important — a live-action Keanu Reeves plays a wise tumbleweed named Sage who shows up to offer pearls of spiritual advice to SpongeBob and his friend Patrick whenever they need them most. It doesn’t matter if this movie is premiering on Paramount+, it’s obviously Cinema with a capital “C.”
But don’t be fooled by its title or its small handful of celebrity drop-ins — “Sponge on the Run” belongs to one character above all others, and that character is Gary the Snail (whose adorable gibberish is provided by SpongeBob voice actor Tom Kenny). For those who don’t know or didn’t remember, Gary is SpongeBob’s longtime pet snail, and he absolutely rules. The Blobby of Bikini Bottom, Gary has two giant eyes that stick way out of his slimy body, and he’s prone to being a little stinker from time to time, but the trail of mucus he leaves behind isn’t the only thing about him that sticks with you. When Gary is snail-napped by Poseidon (Matt Berry) because the vain sea god is running low on the slime that he needs for his skincare regimen, there’s no chance SpongeBob is just going to find some other mollusk to mend the hole in his heart. “Friends don’t let friends become somebody else’s face cream.” A valuable lesson for any family film.
Buckle up for a road trip to the casino-filled lost kingdom of Atlantic City! Of course, it’s not going to be that easy. One problem is that neither SpongeBob nor his Samwise Gamgee of a travel companion Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) have access to a car, and they might be a little too quick to accept a ride from the maniacal Plankton (Mr. Lawrence), who’s always got an ulterior motive of some kind or another. His dastardly, coin-operated plots are always delightful, and this one involves a hyper-capitalistic killer robot named Otto (Awkwafina, funny in an underwritten role) who volunteers to chauffeur our heroes to Atlantic City. The wayward journey to rescue Gary from the clutches of Poseidon and his amusingly unamused righthand fish (Reggie Watts) is defined by its detours, but “SpongeBob” diehards might feel cheated if they weren’t treated to some land-based live-action sequences, a “Livin’ la Vida Loca” montage that owns its staleness, and a breathtaking sax performance from the great Kelpy G.
None of these gags rise above sea level or even really try to, as “Sponge on the Run” is all about maintaining a chuckle-worthy simmer of manic energy so that no one notices how clumsily it uses flashbacks to tee up a new prequel series on Paramount+. But they all help keep things humming along until the characters reach Atlantic City just in time for the movie to suffer a sugar crash. Even the weakest bits get by on good vibes and meta-cleverness (Reeves has become something of a human meme in recent years, but “Sponge on the Run” milks the actor’s brand for a number of solid laughs), and the animation is detailed and inventive enough for the whole film to feel drenched in SpongeBob’s demented energy.
And of course there’s always Gary. Every time Gary isn’t onscreen the audience can’t help but ask themselves, “Where’s Gary?” And when Gary shows up, you’re left wondering how you ever survived without him. Subscribe to Paramount+ and you’ll never have to remember. If that’s not a winning strategy for launching a new multi-billion-dollar streaming platform into an overcrowded space cannibalizing itself in utero at the expense of sustainable content distribution, then what is?
“The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” will be available to stream on Paramount+ beginning Thursday, March 4.