In 1996, Stephen Hillenburg, after the cancellation of his tv series Rocko’s Modern Life, came up to MTV Networks with the craziest damned idea for a tv series involving a talking sponge who, in spite of the constant implication of him being an adult, is still able to retain the personality and all the wonder and immaturity of a child. To add to that, he had the fascinatingly nasally voice actor Tom Kenny to play the high-voiced sponge man-child and gave birth to a voice whose annoyance would never be matched (the closest we have to the vibrato shriek emanating from Tom Hulce’s throat in Amadeus).
I don’t know what coke the executives were snorting when they okayed this (or really Rocko’s Modern Life for that matter, but I think it should be fair to say that while I did watch that show as a child… I currently remember not a single scene from it) but it turned out to be a worthy gambit because SpongeBob SquarePants was released 3 years later in 1999 and became the biggest phenomenon Nickelodeon has produced yet. Among the many products it ended up spawning in its still ongoing run were two theatrical films as a matter of fact, one in 2004 under the name The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie and the other The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, which came out in February of 2015. The reason I intend to review both at the same time is because of the simple reason that, in spite of a difference in plot (save for use of the Krusty Krab formula – a recipe for bugger patties – as a MacGuffin; also a recurring motif in the television series), the two movies are essentially cut from the same cloth.
But there is one out-of-the-film factor I feel is worth pointing out and it regards the tv series a lot more heavily than anything else in either movie. Which is that the releases of the two movies marked checkpoints in the involvement of Hillenburg, credited by fans as the biggest reason for SpongeBob’s success as both a work of comedy and children’s entertainment (an acclaim I would personally attach to that show as well. And while it’s impossible to ignore that I was in the target audience of that show when it premiered, it’s also impossible to ignore that I am frankly immune to nostalgia and find myself hating most of the stuff I watched as a child – recall Van Helsing was my FAVORITE movie… Van Helsing! That piece of shit – so… I don’t think it’s suddenly returned to me in the form of a show that I think people COULD regard as frankly difficult). The story is that Hillenburg had made the movie with the intention of becoming a series finale for the show (which frankly the movie hadn’t felt like, but the show was completely episodic in nature with absolutely no dedication to an arc). He thought the show had lived out its favor and when Nickelodeon said “lol no bro”, Hillenburg said they would have to continue the show without him and left.
The common consensus is that SpongeBob SquarePants has lost all of its great humor when Hillenburg decided to walk out.
At with the release of The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, it seems that Hillenburg has returned to the series (though it has still been undisclosed as to which role he’d be playing) and that he had the largest role alongside current showrunner Paul Tibbitt (whom Hillenburg personally picked to replace him when he left) in writing the story to The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. Which means it’s pretty much set to be the same sort of humor and storytelling.
But first, let’s look over the respective synopsis of each film…
In SpongeBob SquarePants, one of the central conflicts is that between Plankton (Mr. Lawrence… no shit, that’s the credit), owner of the failing Chum Bucket, and Mr. Krabs (an unrecognizable voice performance by usually scary badass Clancy Brown), SpongeBob’s boss and owner of the highly successful Krusty Krab where SpongeBob is a fry cook.
The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie has that conflict come into play when Plankton becomes so supervillain deranged in his pursuits (which he constantly is) that he decides to steal the crown of King Neptune (Jeffrey Tambor), deity of the sea, and frame Mr. Krabs for it so that he can be too busy being lynched to prevent Plankton from stealing the Krabby Patty formula. SpongeBob and his best friend Patrick Star (Bill Fagerbakke) are convinced of Mr. Krabs’ innocence and set out on an adventure to retrieve the crown, while receiving some help from Neptune’s daughter Mindy (Scarlett Johansson). In the meantime, Plankton’s newfound success allows him to take his ambitions much further than fast food domination…
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (ok, typing that whole title to distinguish it from the first film is becoming a pain, so I’m just going to refer to it by its surtitle) is advertised in two forms: 3D (which I, being a huge 3D fanatic, unfortunately was unable to see in… I work late and missed the last 3D screening) and, more dishonestly, as a movie in which SpongeBob and friends take a CGI form in the live-action world. Like 95% of advertising was based on that fact. Which ends up taking, maybe, 10% overall of the film.
What is true about Sponge Out of Water is that it happens to be a little bit of a reversal. Antonio Banderas is the only star name this time as opposed to the previous film (though of course, I’m not sure Tambor and Johansson were as BIG back in ’04 than they are now…), this time we see his face, and he stars as a pirate named Burgerbeard who steals the Krabby Patty formula. Apparently, this formula is so damned important – as the series constantly hinted at – that its disappearance from the town of Bikini Bottom has completed shredded the line between order and chaos for its citizens and all of that blame lies on Plankton.
SpongeBob, being the only other person in the room when Plankton was about to steal the formula, believes Plankton’s claim that the formula literally disappeared into thin air and so teams up with Plankton to find that formula and bring justice back to Bikini Bottom, all while trying to reform Plankton’s maniacal and evil ways to find friendship (which was the subject of another classic SpongeBob episode that ended heartbreakingly).
And so, now that we laid out what the two separate movies are about, how about we talk about HOW they are about those things? Namely in their humor.
The return of Hillenburg and Tibbett as a team together heavily brings back all of the weird, avant-garde, insane humor that the show itself became popular for back when it premiered (and I’ll take that plunge in saying that I feel a lot of shows – particularly on Adult Swim – owe SpongeBob credit in inspiring that sense of humor in popular television animation… even if SpongeBob had to restrain itself). It’s genre-bending, it’s random, it doesn’t owe ties to anyone… And as a result, there’s a lot that works and a lot that doesn’t, but the batting average is enough to make me enjoy myself in the theater for the hour and a half I spent for each movie.
The real difference that distinguishes each movie is how much of the film is dedicated to its narrative and tying its story up. The Spongebob Squarepants Movie is a narrative film first and a platform for some hilarious jokes second and so it doesn’t really outstay its welcome or overstretch itself beyond the fitting 87 minutes that it is. But somehow, Sponge Out of Water feels less epic towards its primary storyline and more dedicated to acting as an extended episode of SpongeBob and by the end of the film, I think its safe to say people will be exhausted. Like honestly tired and wanting to do something else. It’s fun enough that it will more likely be around the finale of the film (for me, it was when they got to the live-action CGI stuff… perhaps because ALL of it is in the trailers), but stuff seems thrown in solely to keep the running time above an hour. Hell, there’s a Douglas Adams-esque middle of the film that doesn’t feel like it outright belongs, and a final singalong that turns into an Epic Rap Battle of History that just outright irks me. Still, it’s a fun movie.
What I do give Sponge Out of Water over The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is its ambition as an animation project. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie’s 2D animation is honestly superior to me, with more acknowledgment of shadows and fluid movements, the cinematic type of work you’d expect from a release that I’m guessing Sponge Out of Water didn’t have time to work too much on, but you obviously can’t dismiss the fact that Sponge Out of Water is a versatile juggle between more animation styles than I can recall having recently seen in a animation picture yet. Not just the obvious 2D – CGI separation, but there’s a fucking Claymation Dolphin character, there’s animation of space and of a prism-like environment with reflections and everything, a throwback to the pirate portrait in the opening theme song of SpongeBob and hell, even the ERB has something new to toss towards the full plate of animation work that Sponge Out of Water wants to mess around with.
Obviously, I’d expect you’re not going to have as much enthusiasm for this film if you’re not as initiated into the franchise as I was, but ignoring the friends of mine who had no clue what SpongeBob was while watching with me and still loving it, I had a nearly decade-long sabbatical from that show and still felt like not much was missing from the two movies to make them fun little night watch. They’re silly, they’re wacky, they’re manic, and they refuse to let up on any of those things and sometimes I’d say you shouldn’t need to distill something to make it easier to swallow.