"Come on, Spongebob, join me! We'll be rich and powerful until I eventually betray you."
More than fifteen years into its history, Spongebob Squarepants remains one of the most delightfully original cartoon series on the air. Sure, they've settled into a rhythm where just about every other episode involves Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) trying to steal the Krabby Patty formula, but at this point it's much more fun to watch how the writers continue to make hay out of the same storyline. It should come as no surprise, then, that the second Spongebob film, Sponge Out of Water, also follows that exact same basic plot. In other words, this isn't a film for casual fans, nor will it likely win over those who have been resistant to the show's charms, but for those who still get a kick out of the antics of these characters, this is the film you've been waiting for.
Perhaps the greatest strength of these characters is that they never really change. It's why a sequel can come 11 years after their first go-round and feel like literally no time has passed. Spongebob (Tom Kenny) is still hopelessly positive and optimistic, Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) is still dumb as a rock but loyal to the bitter end, Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) is still singularly focused on money and foiling Plankton, who is just as dead set on stealing that formula, and Squidward (Rodger Bumpass) is still, well, Squidward. The real joy of the show, at this point, is seeing how outsiders deal with these rock solid personalities, and in this film, they get a live action antagonist in Burger Beard, played by the gloriously hammy Antonio Banderas. Banderas' strength as an actor has always been his macho gusto, and seeing it cranked to absurd levels here is a lot of fun.
Burger Beard is the narrative glue of the film, narrating the tale of Bikini Bottom's most famous denizens to a flock of seagulls, voiced by such great voice actors as Billy West, Carlos Alazraqui, and Spongebob regular Tim Conway. Through a series of plot twists far too convoluted to sound reasonable, Burger Beard comes into possession of the Krabby Patty formula thanks to another failed Plankton heist and a time travel side plot that honestly didn't make a whole lot of sense. From there, Bikini Bottom turns into a post-apocalytpic wasteland that owes more than a little debt to Mad Max, thanks to the ubiquitous presence of leather outfits, ruinous locales, and an abundance of mohawks.
Frankly, the fact that the plot doesn't make a whole heck of a lot of sense, and is constantly aided by a talking deus-ex-dolphina named Bubbles (Matt Berry) is what makes it work so well. Had this been an original property or a stab at a big screen adventure following the conclusion of the first season of the show, it likely wouldn't work as well as it does. What sells the film is that it's an opportunity to spend 90 minutes with characters whose motives and actions are projected a hundred miles away, and seeing how gleeful the writers and animators are at getting a chance to play with them in interesting ways. Again, this is advanced studies Spongebob, not a 101 course for newbies.
More than a few of the bizarre diversions and sidetracks work incredibly well, like a subplot involving a snail uprising led by Spongebob's beloved pet snail Gary, and a trip inside Spongebob's brain that yields an hilarious reference to The Shining. A handful of them don't land as well, like a rap version of the theme song performed by Bubbles and the seagulls that feels as if it's never going to end, but this is first and foremost a movie aimed at children, and the kids at my screening ate it up. Another odd choice was to pair up Spongebob and Plankton for the bulk of the film's second act, forcing more interesting characters like Patrick, Squidward, and Mr. Krabs into the background, but these are minor quibbles. Coming back to find Patrick looting his own home is almost reason enough to push him out of the foreground for thirty minutes or so.
The show was blessed from minute one with a top notch cast of voice actors, and they rise admirably to the occasion here. Tom Kenny is a national treasure, and anyone who's followed his work since his days on Mr. Show with Bob & David will be delighted to hear him once more nailing his work here. He manages to keep Spongebob gloriously one-dimensional and full of surprising depth, and a significant portion of why the character and the film work is because of his dedication. Clancy Brown is also a vocal genius, making Mr. Krabs my favorite secondary character on the show, and keeping his antics feeling fresh despite the fact that they're really showing signs of fatigue. The rest of the voice cast is also great as always, including Kenny's wife and fellow Mr. Show alum Jill Talley, and Carolyn Lawrence is also worth mentioning for her terrific work as Sandy, especially when they are blessed with superpowers.
The script gets zero points for originality, but as I said earlier, that's not necessarily a bad thing. The constant overload of references not just to the show's past but to other pop culture landmarks is its strength, and it manages to contain just enough originality to make it feel like a film rather than an overlong episode. The animation is gorgeous in all its crudity, keeping the same aesthetic the show has always had, just making the world feel fuller. It's interesting to note that despite the pictures available to me for this review, the bulk of the film is done in the standard animation style of the cartoon show, it's only once they come to the surface in the third act that they transform into three dimensional versions of themselves.
If you're a fan of Spongebob or have kids who are, Sponge Out of Water will be a welcome chance to spend some time hanging out with characters you love in situations you're familiar with. It's not the rousing success that I found the first film to be, mainly because it's almost not weird enough and doesn't subvert the formula of the show quite as much as it could have, but those are minor quibbles. That these filmmakers can still nail these characters 16 years after creating them, and manage to keep them entertaining and enjoyable is more than you can ask of a lot of properties at that advanced age. This one's for the fans, and they are going to have a blast.
GO Rating: 3/5
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]