The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge On The Run
Here’s the God’s honest truth: when my girlfriend stuck this on the other night, I had no idea that it was a new SpongeBob Squarepants movie. I had assumed, quite wrongly, that it was an older picture, having last really checked in with the larger franchise around the time that the stage musical came out in 2016. To be honest, I had a false memory that it had actually finished its TV run, but that turned out to be dead wrong. Not only is Spongebob still going on TV, still going on stage, but he’s still making movies.
It’s just about two years since the tragically young death of creator Stephen Hillenburg, and Sponge On The Run feels like the kind of project that might have had him and his memory in mind, more than just the continuation of the TV show. It seems like a noble goal considering his part in the other two movies that have been released, but more than that, it’s always good to relax a bit into the world of Bikini Bottom: a world that rarely fails to leave me with a smile on my face, with its positive attitude, irreverent humour and colourful animation. So, was this one more of the same, or has the sponge become worn out (work with me here, all of the good puns are gone)?
When his pet snail Gary is kidnapped by King Poseidon (Matt Berry) to use as a source of age-defying slime, SpongeBob Squarepants (Tom Kenny) embarks on an epic adventure to rescue him. Accompanied always by best friend Patrick (Bill Faggerbakke), SpongeBob’s quest takes him on dream visions featuring spirit guide Sage (Keanu Reeves), the flashy lights of the Lost City of Atlantic City, and the time in his life when he met many of his current friends for the first time.
It feels a little over-the-top to be offering an analysis of a film like Sponge On The Run. After all, SpongeBob Squarepants has traditionally seemed rather aloof from such things, utterly confident in what it is and in what it pertains to be, and with a charming earnestness that just makes you want to like whatever comes out of the franchise. But, but, but. I am forced to admit that I wasn’t really wowed by Sponge Out Of Water like I have been with previous films and other stories from this universe, and regretfully add that I feel like it’s longevity is now a cause for concern. What shall we call it, Simpsons Syndrome? Or maybe Zombie Simpsons Syndrome? We might define it as “No animated show can be consistently great over a long enough time period.”
Because Sponge Out Of Water isn’t great. What it is is, is that it’s fine. OK. Alright. It hits all of the required plot beats you would expect from the outline I wrote above, has plenty of laughs and warm feelings, a few lessons are learned and everyone comes out of it smiling, even Plankton. But it isn’t on the same level as some of the earlier stuff from this creative team, and one regretfully wonders if the departure of Hillenburg might be at the root of that problem, mores the pity. The jokes are just a little less regular and a little less funny, things feel that bit more stretched, the zaniness now has the appearance more of a crutch than a worthwhile addition. Too much of the running time is dedicated to flashbacks that, while workable in their own right, feel like set-up/backdoor piloting for an upcoming TV spin-off (Hillenburg himself was on-record as opposing spin-off’s to SpongeBob).
I mean, even in plot terms, this is actually a re-tread, from the acclaimed “Have You Seen This Snail?” episode. Expanded and with more high-profile guest stars, but it is the same general idea, and when you are starting to go over old ground, it is generally a bad sign. In plot terms then, Sponge On The Run is lacking something, which explains the many cutaways and side adventures that SpongeBob and Patrick end up going down. These aren’t half-bad, and include a live-action dream quest featuring Danny Trejo as a bandit ghost and dancing zombies; recurring segments where Keanu Reeves inhabits a wisdom-spouting tumbleweed; repeated flashbacks to SpongeBob’s childhood meetings with various people (tearing up continuity, but what of it?); and any scene featuring Matt Berry’s outrageously fabulous King Poseidon.
I suppose the general feeling is that we have a few different ideas that could each have been parsed out into an individual episode of the TV show, with the Gary plot to wrap them up with. And that’s not a terrible thing really, it just means that Sponge Out Of Water is scattershot in its approach, and struggles to get a good rhythm going. Every time that we get reminded that SpongeBob is out to rescue Gary, we’re pulled into some other side-adventure, and much of the third act is an origin story that serves as the aforementioned spin-off set-up.
Aside from those cutaways, Sponge Out Of Water is pretty rigid with the formula (the crabby patty formula as it were) all the way onto the heartwarming finale where everyone is a friend and SpongeBob and Gary are reunited (we can’t really call that a spoiler, can we?). There is little in the way of subtext, or any meaning that you have to strain too hard to understand: the deepest it gets is a few minutes at the end about how happiness comes from being authentic, and not being obsessed with the perceptions of others. When a film of this nature can’t even settle on a through-line and stick with it for the duration, there is a problem.
The cast is certainly giving it socks, like they always do: Kenny is endearing as SpongeBob (and Gary), Fagerbakke charmingly aloof as Patrick, Clancy Brown entertaining as Krabs, Roger Bumpass a suitable sadsack as Squiqward. They and others have been playing their parts for so long that it would probably be hard for them to put in a bad performance if they were even trying. It’s then guest stars we have to look out more for, and the likes of Awkafina, Tiffany Haddish and Reggie Watts are fun in their respective roles, while the likes of Danny Trejo and Keanu Reeves enjoy their extended cameos with a “nod, nod, wink, wink” sensibility, but the script and the brevity of their roles doesn’t really allow for them to have much of an impact really (Reeves might have the best joke though, rolling into see an imprisoned SpongeBob and Patrick to proclaim them “the worst epic heroes”).
In the end, what can I say that I was actually looking for, with Sponge Out Of Water’s plot? It seems ridiculous to be critical, given that I am not the target audience and that SpongeBob is the exact kind of property that is never going to give too much care to the opinion of critics. I suppose all I can say is that this franchise has delivered better stories and better films in the not too distant past, ones that were more cohesive, more ready with the jokes and a bit more inventive. It was always a franchise that could be said to appeal to a broad swath of the viewing public, from the littlest kids right on up to childless adults, it was that good. Sponge Out Of Water is not that good: it’s the kind of thing that is aimed very pointedly to the youngest of the audience, and the rest of us are a little left out, save for chucking when Danny Trejo shows up, for the umpteenth time in his career, as an inversion of the parts he is most famous for. Only on the odd occasion is the bar set higher, like with Mr Krab’s “legacy artisanal throwback menu”: the left over patties from the day before.
If Sponge On The Run doesn’t stand out with its plot, it at least does stand out from a visual perspective. There’s only a relatively small amount of 2D animation here, with most of it being of the 3D CGI variety, with a few live-action inserts as has long been the style of the franchise. For the most part it works rather well: eye-catching, colourful and always inventive, in a way that the rest of the film sometimes isn’t. Something as brutally simple as Keanu Reeves’ head in a tumbleweed is done with care, and the various denizens of Bikini Bottom have rarely looked better than they do here: the move from 2D to 3D is not just a pointless gimmick in other words, but an improvement. Faces are really well done, from Poseidon’s overly-groomed exterior to the the fat-cheeked young SpongeBob in flashbacks. While it has only a few musical numbers that this sort of genre are usually infested with, it’s scored brightly by Hanz Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro.
I don’t want to be labour this whole exercise because, as stated, Sponge Out Of Water is not the kind of film that will give even an iota of care for my opinion. It would only really care about the kids, and I would wager they would be happy enough with this frequently funny, vibrantly colourful continuation of the title character’s usual insane adventures, with all of the crew along for the ride. For everyone else though, there is little here to dispel the idea that every franchise, animated or no, has a point of diminishing returns, and SpongeBob Squarepants seems to have hit that point. This show isn’t going to be hitting the headlines anymore, isn’t going to be inserting itself into the larger zeitgeist with aplomb. Instead, it is settling into a more quiet mediocrity, one that can only be compared to the same situation that occurred with The Simpsons or Family Guy, shows that have gone way, way too long past the point when they should have been wrapped up with some dignity. SpongeBob isn’t quite there yet, but the waymarker is not far off. Unlike the somewhat similarly “only OK” Candace Against The Universe recently, something that at least is decidedly at the end of a franchise’s run. this feels like the point of no return. It is simply said that for fans of the yellow sponge, this film is bang average and an enjoyable enough diversion, but suffers in comparison to earlier contributions. So, partly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).