As I sat in the theater waiting for the screening of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie to begin, I was surrounded by more than a hundred little kids with their parents-Radio Disney contest winners, along with some other film critics who brought their young ones along. They bounced excitedly in their seats, waiting for the film to start. When the Radio Disney representatives asked some simple trivia questions for a pre-show prize giveaway, the kids screamed so loudly, you'd swear they'd just been offered a trip to the moon. The funny part is, despite the calmer exterior, I suspect a lot of the adults in the theater were probably almost as excited. Including me.
I was glad to get the SpongeBob movie assignment because I am also a fan of America's favorite sea sponge "who lives in a pineapple under the sea." The TV show SpongeBob Squarepants is the most-watched kids' show in television history largely because its audience reaches beyond children. Like VeggieTales, the classic Warner Brothers shorts, and Rocky & Bullwinkle, SpongeBob has a cult following with adults and college students. And why not? It's good comedy offering plenty of adult-oriented satire and real world gags sprinkled throughout the animated slapstick.
The big question, of course, is whether or not this film will appeal to anyone who isn't already acquainted with the show. I don't think it will, for several reasons. The movie doesn't introduce viewers to the characters and the setting, but instead assumes you've watched the show enough to want to see the silly antics in a theater. Unless you're a well-versed SpongeBob fanatic, this is not your movie.
Things start with Mr. Krabs opening a second fast food restaurant (and next door to the original Krusty Krab, no less). Fans know all too well that SpongeBob adores his work as a fry cook, and he expects to be named manager of the Krusty Krab 2. Naturally, he's passed over in favor of his grouchy co-worker Squidward because Krabs feels that Spongebob is too immature-"just a kid"-for the job.
Meanwhile, Krabs' miniature and megalomaniacal rival Plankton is trying yet again to steal the Krabby Patty formula with "Plan Z"-steal the crown of King Neptune (voiced by Jeffrey Tambor of TV's Arrested Development), and frame Krabs for the crime. Before the hot-tempered Neptune can sentence Krabs to death, SpongeBob agrees to make the long journey to Shell City to recover the royal headpiece with his dim-witted best friend Patrick Star. Emboldened by moral support from Neptune's daughter Princess Mindy (Scarlett Johansson of Lost in Translation), the two buddies embark on their own version of Homer's Odyssey, blissfully ignorant of their own wussiness and the perils awaiting them, including a professional assassin sent by Plankton named Dennis (Alec Baldwin).
Co-written and co-directed by series creator Stephen Hillenburg, most of the show's hallmarks are here: the sight gags, the melodramatic outbursts, the extreme double takes, and the overwrought genre parodies. But at the same time, something's lacking. Historically, animated shorts and television cartoons rarely make the successful transition to the big screen-Nickelodeon alone has struggled with adaptations of Rugrats, The Wild Thornburrys, and others.
Many had high hopes that the creativity and quick wit of SpongeBob's creators might somehow pull this off. Here's why it falls short like nearly every other cartoon adaptation you've seen:
- Cartoon shorts don't stretch well into a feature length film. It's never worked for Bugs Bunny, Animaniacs, or VeggieTales, and it still doesn't work here. Cartoons lose their comedic pacing when forced to carry a plot for 90 minutes. SpongeBob's television program is built upon tightly written 11-minute episodes that have the quick timing of a vaudeville comedy routine. The creators had the right idea with this film-a quest-based story that allows room for episodic developments-but the movie just doesn't deliver on the fast and funny exchanges between characters, favoring instead a derivative and lame "save the town" plot.
- Sophomoric sight gags vs. witty humor. Not that SpongeBob is the paragon of highbrow entertainment-half the fun is watching the critters scream crazily from ludicrous circumstances-but the show has been much smarter than this. The movie seems to take itself more seriously, partially because Bikini Bottom is doomed if SpongeBob fails his mission. When the story does get silly, the humor resorts to humor at its most sophomoric. There are few bits that rely on the site of a character's rear end, and at one point, Patrick even resorts to the punchline, "Did you see my butt?" The Goofy Goober ice cream club bit wears thin very quickly-is it just me, or do SpongeBob and Patrick act even more immature and effeminate than ever before?
- Avoid recycling old material. At one point in the film, SpongeBob and Patrick attempt to recover their vehicle from a tough motorcycle bar called The Thug Tug. The results aren't nearly as funny as the episode when SpongeBob tries to prove he's tough enough to enter The Salty Spittoon with Sandy. Likewise, their encounter with a giant monster with a creepy lure is a little too similar to SpongeBob's and Sandy's run-in with an Alaskan Bullworm on the TV show. And during a dull musical number involving a stroll through a monster-infested abyss, you'll wish you were watching the classic visit to the bottom-dwelling community of Rock Bottom.
- Keep what makes the show work. Aside from the aforementioned lazier writing, most of the characters are relegated to bit parts and cameos-Krabs, Squidward, and Sandy included. This is primarily a SpongeBob and Patrick road movie.
- Bigger and louder does not make it better. The animation is more clean and fluid, and there some scenes that are impressive in their art direction and enormous size. Call me old-fashioned, but sometimes I find myself preferring the more roughly drawn artwork than the pristine stuff. The movie seems more obsessed with gimmicks and sight gags, none bigger than a bizarre and chuckle-worthy cameo from David Hasselhoff (Baywatch).
There are other funny bits and surprises spread out through the movie, but most of it is uncharacteristically predictable. I imagine older fans of the show will be disappointed, while adults who have never gained an appreciation for SpongeBob won't like it at all.
Of course, the primary audience is the kids, and they seemed to be entertained enough at the screening I went to, though parents should note the PG rating. The TV show has always had a few adult laughs that mostly sail over the heads of the kiddies; this film pushes it a little further. In one of the film's funnier scenes, SpongeBob become a bitter, slurred-speaking drunk after a nightlong ice cream binge. Plankton drools over his folder for "Plan Z" as if he were gazing at a Playboy centerfold. And I had to shake my head in disbelief at the site of Patrick in thigh high leather boots and fishnet stockings-I squid you not. Do not take your kids to this if you felt that Shrek 2 was inappropriate.
The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is intended as good-natured silliness, but the kids are more likely to be entertained than anyone else. Thankfully, it's back to the drawing board for the television show's creators, who have previously proven themselves capable of much better than this soggy and waterlogged miscalculation.Discussion starters
- SpongeBob misses an opportunity because he's too "immature." Is it possible to be a responsible adult and still act like a kid? What can SpongeBob do to improve his reputation with other adults, aside from saving the city?
- Is it enough to simply believe in yourself to succeed? What does the film seem to say? What else do we need? What role do our shortcomings play in our success or failure? Is it possible to succeed in spite of our shortcomings?
- Contrast King Neptune's stern disciplinary actions with Princess Mindy's compassion. Who is the stronger ruler? Are there pros and cons to each worldview? Is there a time for sternness and a time for love?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Rated PG for mild crude humor, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie has a few little scatological gags that's pretty much par for the course with the television show. SpongeBob gets drunk and suffers from a hangover after a nightlong ice cream binge. Patrick Star is seen in fishnet stockings and leather boots. Families that enjoyed Shrek 2 shouldn't have a problem with this film, but do keep the PG rating in mind, compared to most other G-rated animated films.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Picturescompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 11/24/04
It's hip to be SquarePants
The deep-sea town of Bikini Bottom is saying goodbye to television hero SpongeBob SquarePants. He's on his way to hunt down King Neptune's crown, which has been stolen. He's got help from some of his slippery friends, he's opposed by a squishy villain, and, in a twist that makes as much sense as the rest of it, he gets help from the infamous TV superstar David Hasselhoff.
He's also winning good reviews. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie has earned a "sponge up" from Roger Ebert and many other mainstream critics. Religious press reviewers are surprised and pleased as well.
Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says, "It's good comedy offering plenty of adult-oriented satire and real world gags sprinkled throughout the animated slapstick. The big question, of course, is whether or not this film will appeal to anyone who isn't already acquainted with the show. I don't think it will, for several reasons." And he goes on to describe them, concluding, "Unless you're a well-versed SpongeBob fanatic, this is not your movie."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it preserves the television cartoon's "light-hearted, kid-friendly tone," and that it feels like "an extended episode" of the show. It's "never mean-spirited and refreshingly cynicism-free. Underneath its looney-tune silliness is a positive believe-in-yourself message that extols the virtues of childhood. In a world where kids grow up way too fast, it's nice to see a movie that actually celebrates innocence."
Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says, "SpongeBob is cartoonish enough for youngsters to like it. Off-beat enough for teens to still think it's cool. And funny enough for lots of adults to enjoy." But he encourages parents to use discernment, and to observe how their children react to the show, due to a high level of "cartoon violence that, while now all-too routine, is still influential, and needs to be addressed if your family sees this flick."
"The film will ultimately please SpongeBob fans," writes Jimmy Akin (Decent Films). "It survives the transition from its typical story length of twelve minutes and manages to fill ninety minutes of screen time with a satisfyingly complicated plot (for a cartoon). It's cute, funny, and, in the words of New York Times critic A.O. Scott, 'a marvel of unleashed childishness, like a birthday party on the edge of spinning out of control.'"
But Lacy Mical Callahan (Christian Spotlight) objects. "Please do not be deceived by the light-hearted, cute trailers for this cartoon and take your kids to see it assuming it will be clean, innocent fun. There is nudity throughout the movie. We view Patrick's bare buttocks during three scenes, and SpongeBob's once. SpongeBob and Patrick are also shown in their underwear a few times. The underwear is drawn to look like men's fitted briefs. David Hasselhoff makes an embarrassing cameo in swim trunks. It is a grotesque scene. There are many scenes of fighting, threatening, execution orders, and countless times characters are wounded."
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