The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is the rare film for children that neither assumes kids are unsophisticated enough to be tickled by ancient vaudeville routines nor alienates them by pandering to adults with constant allusions young viewers can’t possibly catch. It has a freshness and energy that make a reassuring change from the typical hackneyed “family” films, both animated and live-action, that are typically foisted off on children. The plot structure is nothing special; it’s a typical story of two buddies on a quest to recover a valuable object and, more importantly, their own self-esteem. But the execution surrounds the prosaic storyline with enough charmingly irreverent gags that the film works as a satisfying entertainment for children and adults alike.
SpongeBob lives in an undersea area called Bikini Bottom, where he works at a fast-food eatery called The Krusty Krab, owned by Mr. Eugene H. Krabs. Success has permitted Krabs to build a second store immediately next to the first, where SpongeBob, who’s been employee of the month for 374 consecutive months (that’s more than 31 years, but no matter—linear thinking is a liability in SpongeBob’s world) assumes he’ll be named manager. When Krabs passes him over in favor of his rival, Squidward Tentacles, due to SpongeBob’s perceived immaturity, he and his best pal Patrick Star (a starfish, naturally) go on a sundae bender at Goofy Goober’s Ice Cream Party Boat.
Meanwhile, at King Neptune’s palace, Krabs’ rival Sheldon J. Plankton has stolen the king’s crown, leaving an incriminating note: “I stole your crown. Signed, Eugene Krabs.” Over the objections of his kind daughter, Mindy, Neptune is poised to kill Krabs until SpongeBob intervenes, offering to retrieve the crown. This requires SpongeBob and Patrick to traverse the dangerous road to Shell City, on which “crooks, killers, and monsters” await them around every turn, and to pass through a “deep, dark, dangerous, hazardous, monster-infested trench.” It turns out that Plankton has concocted the robbery solely to get SpongeBob out of the way so that he can steal Krabs’ customers for his own business, the Chum Bucket, and employ a mind-control device that allows him to reconstruct Bikini Bottom in his own image.
The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie was conceived, co-written, and directed by the character’s creator, Stephen Hillenburg, who shows great comic instincts and the good sense not to get bogged down in the lesson-learning that always occurs in a children’s adventure story. What SpongeBob and Patrick discover along the way is simply that they’re fine the way they are; that being a kid is a good, natural, and, most importantly, fun thing, and there’s no reason to rush to be a grown-up.
Hillenburg also avoids turning the film over to his celebrity guests. Jeffrey Tambor and Scarlett Johannson do the voices of King Neptune and Mindy, and Dennis, a thug sent by Plankton to finish off SpongeBob and Patrick, is voiced by Alec Baldwin, but there are no great star turns here. These characters are incorporated into Hillenburg’s existing ensemble. The one guest star who is played up is David Hasselhoff, hilariously spoofing his “Baywatch” beach-god status in a late sequence that cleverly combines animation and live-action.
Fans of the treacly Disney animated films may be put off by The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie; its sensibility is more like an updated, slightly coarser version of brilliant Warner Bros. cartoons of the 1940s and 50s. Hillenburg gives his visuals a similar inventive, tossed-off whimsy, such as when SpongeBob produces a bifurcated toothbrush and passes up his buckteeth to polish his eyeballs. There are a few low gags that seem perfunctory, a sop to kids’ bottomless enthusiasm for bodily-functions comedy, but they’re gone too quickly to mar the film’s essential innocence.
Ever since the tremendous success of the Toy Story films, the glossy entertainment magazines have been asking if traditional, hand-drawn animation was dead, superseded by the more lifelike qualities of computer-generated animation. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, in utilizing both and combining them with the inventive use of live-action elements demonstrates that any medium can be vigorously, enchantingly alive in the hands of skilled creators.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()