Impressively absurd 'The SpongeBob Movie' delivers fast and furious comedic stylings
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water Paramount Pictures
Director: Paul Tibbitt
Screenplay: Glenn Berger and Jonathan Aibel, based on the series SpongeBob SquarePants, created by Stephen Hillenburg
Starring: Antonio Banderas, and the voices of Tom Kenny, Bill Fagerbakke, Rodger Bumpass, Mr. Lawrence, Matt Berry, Clancy Brown, Carolyn Lawrence, Jill Talley and Dee Bradley Baker
Rated PG / 1 hour, 32 minutes
February 13, 2015
(out of four)
Sponge Out of Water is not so much a SpongeBob movie as a SpongeBob series of bits that happens to add up to movie length. That's just fine with me; I like anecdotal and episodic storytelling and I like sketch comedy, and that's basically the format of the film. Sure, there's a single plot point that connects everything - and a meta frame story on top of that - but for all intents and purposes, this is a sketch movie in which virtually anything goes.
That SpongeBob has been created first and foremost from a comedic standpoint is not insignificant; it's what separates the good animated (or otherwise family-oriented) movies from the rest. I remember feeling a similar sort of enthusiasm for, among others, Aardman's Arthur Christmas a few years back, or Paddington and Penguins of Madagascar more recently - the keen awareness that the film I was watching was made by real comedy people, rather than by filmmakers half-heartedly executing canned jokes and desperate gags. It's easy to tell the difference, and Sponge Out of Water, for all its unevenness, is nothing if not the result of a distinct comedic mentality.
I'm not sure if it helps our hurts that I'm not especially familiar with the SpongeBob SquarePants series, except for the pieces I've seen in passing when younger siblings or cousins were around. All I really know is that it's a children's show on Nickeloden that has a cult following among people (and age groups) that wouldn't ordinarily watch Nickelodeon. If this movie is a general indication of the sense of humor and surreal logic of the show (as I assume it is), then its crossover audience is not surprising. It feels like something more along the lines of Adult Swim - without quite the same level of adult irreverence, but certainly a similar sense of the absurd, the nonsensical and the non-sequitorial.
The best part of the movie is the most Adult Swim-ish of all, a sublimely warped sequence in which SpongeBob (voiced by Tom Kenny) and his cohorts travel thousands of years into the future and happen upon the Watcher of the Universe, an anthropomorphic dolphin with a British accent, dressed in a kingly crimson robe, who has been standing in view of our solar system - just watching it, standing guard - for 10,000 years. Upon the arrival of his new guests, he takes a quick bathroom break, and of course everything hits the fan within seconds.
It's such an inspired piece of absurdity, I could barely contain myself. That is not to say every sequence in the film is as great as that one, but it certainly got my attention in a way few animated movie scenes ever have. (I began to wonder if Bubbles was a recurring character from the TV series, so that it was simply building on a long-running joke, but my cursory research suggests that's not the case. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong.)
That scene is part of a larger setpiece in which the characters build a time machine in order to undo the theft of the secret Krabby Patty recipe, the favorite food item of the underwater residents of Bikini Bottom, and intellectual property of the Krusty Krab and its proprietor, Mr. Krabs (voiced by Clancy Brown). The disappearance of the secret recipe is, in fact, the entire plot. And while the prime suspect is Plankton (voiced by Mr. Lawrence) - given that he is constantly trying to steal the recipe - we know that it is in fact the doing of the sinister pirate, Burger Beard (Antonio Banderas), who plans on turning his pirate ship into a food truck on the beaches of Sandy Shoals.
In one of the film's many meta touches, Burger Beard is able to get away with his evil deeds by virtue of the fact that he's literally writing the story himself, having stolen a storybook at the bottom of the sea that contains the very story we're watching and taken it upon himself to rewrite it at will.
There are times when the meta humor of Sponge Out of Water seems stale by 2015 standards, rehashing the types of postmodern gags we've gotten constant servings of for the last two decades. But at the same time, it's hard not to admire the way that meta structure opens up new avenues for the story, and new opportunities for largely self-contained comic setpieces.
That's ultimately how and why SpongeBob works - because it keeps on finding ways to change direction. The result is a film that shifts almost effortlessly from hallucinatory psychedelia to comic-book action to slapstick to wacky stream-of-consciousness. It is as full of Kubrick references as it is bad puns, and throws in a little Mad Max for good measure. It's always a challenge to take a piece of short-form storytelling and push it to feature length, the common criticism being that the movie version just feels like a superfluously long episode of the show. Having not seen the SquarePants series, I have no idea if the show is regularly like this, but I imagine it doesn't really matter. The movie is episodic in nature, and it works by keeping things going until the gags run out. And in this case there are more than enough quality gags to fill the extended runtime.