Nautical Nonsense: SpongeBob Review (C)

You can’t say SpongeBob SquarePants doesn’t keep promises.

The square sponge himself has always been honest to a fault –he’s like a helium voiced George Washington, incapable in Sponge Out Of Water of telling a lie, even if that lie could finally bury his arch-nemesis, the dastardly Plankton. His creators are just as honest. For sixteen years (as long as Jon Stewart has hosted the Daily Show), their theme song has promised children, stoners, nostalgists, and admirers of absurdist non-sequiters alike that “nautical nonsense” is on the horizon.

For the majority of SpongeBob’s eleven minute adventures, that nonsense has been confined to the undersea hamlet of Bikini Bottom, but – as a title like Sponge Out Of Water would seem to promise – that nonsense washes up on land in this second feature length interpretation of a Nickelodeon show that, yes, is still on. A seaside beach town and the entirety of acclaimed actor Antonio Banderas are completely overtaken by a nonsense tidal wave.

The inanity is nowhere near as palatable as it has been in the past. I am from a generation for whom the question “Is mayonnaise an instrument?” is a profound inquiry; I can handle my fair share of Bikini Bottom inanity. Here, in bits and pieces, it is inspired. One pun about condiments utilized as weapons really lands (“With relish!”). A trip into SpongeBob’s brain is a joyous nightmare. The transformation of hyper-intelligent squirrel Sandy Cheeks into a tattered conspiracy theorist is resoundingly enjoyable. Individual zingers do reliably hit their mark. But can a SpongeBob story hold together as a film experience? Two overstretched boondoggles that try to raise the usually impossibly low stakes of SpongeBob’s world – a world where, if the Krusty Krab wall is blown to smithereens one minute, it can be standing again the next – say no.

It was once thought that Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – the first film ever to try stretching a character’s animated adventures from a tolerable ten minutes to a near-insane eighty minutes – would be the mighty Walt Disney’s great folly. This thought was obviously, in an ironic twist, quite a bit of folly all on its own, but it stemmed from an honest concern. The characters that ruled the roost when that waifish fairy tale princess changed the game forever never really HAVE had a feature length display worthy of their legendary shorts, have they? The Looney Tunes? Mickey Mouse and his ToonTown compatriots? Popeye, Felix the Cat, Betty Boop? These characters that seem so vital in short bursts come across disjointed when confronted by the bloat of a full run time. You need to staple them to a preexisting skeleton like “A Christmas Carol.” You need to prop them up with live action celebrities like Michael Jordan and Brendan Fraser. These characters live and die by their brevity, and, exposed to sunlight for more than a short cartoon at a time, they just die. If Mickey Mouse (the dashing Mickey of the 30s) and Bugs Bunny – gods of animation anarchy – have never been able to find a vessel that could carry them to the surface, why would SpongeBob?

That’s not a shot at SpongeBob’s inferiority. That’s a proud equivalency. In a way, he and they are one in the same. We were not so far from our animation roots in long ago 1999, when SpongeBob was created; in many ways, a show like SpongeBob is not so different from the Merry Melodies and Looney Tunes of days long gone. They belong to a family tree distinct from the majestic oak that sprung from Snow White, with its gimlet eyed princesses, wounded orphans, and strivers pushing back against menacing villains forming the branches that have supported the animated feature for nearly eighty years. It’s always a bit of a shock when an animated film like The Emperor’s New Groove or An American Tail seems to be plucking fruit from the Looney Tree instead. Television – Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel – became the home for the eleven minute burst of comic energy.

Steven Hillenberg and team have created some absolutely transcendent explosions of antic energy. Just about half the segments in their first season went a long way toward defining the comic sensibility of a generation (notably, “Band Geeks” didn’t even come around until Season 2). While the humor can occasionally verge on sophomoric or gross, it is always tinged with sweetness and optimism, thanks, of course, to the lead character. Has there ever been a character more optimistic than SpongeBob SquarePants? SpongeBob is a chortling innocent, free from malice, wanting always to do a good job, but tugged down by forces that go against everything he believes – forces like greed and sloth and joylessness. Except for the malice, which young Mickey had in spades, he’s a lot like the Mouse if he’d never grown up to become the Disney company’s beguiling father figure.

The rub: SpongeBob never changes – he’s always fighting that fight for a promotion at the Krusty Krab. Bugs Bunny also never changes. Mickey did change, and it robbed him of his urgency. Look around the cast of characters in Bikini Bottom. They are as they were in 1999 – Plankton as malicious, Krabs as greedy, Patrick as stoopid, Squidward as annoyed – and, y’know, as we plunge in for a short visit on Nickelodeon, that is exactly how we expect it to be. But when we go to the theater for 92 minutes…

Look I don’t want to be that guy who says uniformly that movies SHOULD have anything in order to be good, even if it’s something so elemental as character growth. Plenty of movies circumvent this desire we have when we see a film: the desire to see relationships transform over the duration of the runtime, to end up somewhere other than the place where we started. But surpassing that desire takes a level of artifice that this series of gags lacks. SpongeBob SquarePants: Sponge Out Of Water just doesn’t hold together as a viewing experience.

It begins and ends with Burger-Beard the Pirate and the seagulls that follow him around. Antonio Banderas is giving his live-action role here all he’s got in his own gonzo way, but looking at him buried behind a scraggly beard, I think of the sharpness in his eyes as he played Galgo, the best character in the arthritic Expendables 3. It pales in comparison. There’s no vitality in his work as he threatens awful-looking CGI birds who never once do anything funny enough to earn them all the screentime they get.

What is Burger-Beard doing anyway? He’s going to an island to retrieve a magic storybook? Where did this book about Bikini Bottom come from? Why is it guarded by a cursed skeleton? And from where did Burger Beard even hear about the famed Krabby Patty? This isn’t the kind of movie that cares, but because of that, all of this is is one long lead up to a “food truck” joke. Are food trucks really that funny?

Burger-Beard has used a magic book to rewrite the story of Bikini Bottom and steal the secret recipe to the beloved Krabby Patty, much to the chagrin of his avian audience. In Bikini Bottom, the denizens spend 2/3 of the movie completely unaware of his involvement, blaming the natural suspect, Plankton, for their sudden post-apocalyptic leather fetish instead. SpongeBob, the only man brave enough to stand up for the accused, is thrown in as a co-conspirator, and the main chunk of the movie is spent following this odd couple as they try to avoid capture and prove their innocence. This involves a good deal of time travel, and if this segment were an episode of the show, it would be perfectly serviceable. Some hits, some misses, not close to on par with most of Season 1’s segments. Plankton learns the meaning of teamwork (it takes him the whole movie to learn how to pronounce the word, which is the closest thing to character growth we see), but he abandons SpongeBob just as Mr. Krabs is about to sacrifice his fry cook to satisfy the burger gods.

The SpongeBob universe now has a time machine and a squid dinosaur, but the writers can’t find any utility for these devices in their quest to somehow tie Burger-Beard in with the larger narrative, so you know what they do? They have the characters smell the Krabby Patty. They pick up the scent… At the most convenient moment…

This would qualify as the biggest dues ex machina in the story if the film didn’t posit that the characters can breathe on land because Uatu the Dolphin was so grateful that SpongeBob got him out of a bad job by destroying Saturn and Jupiter that he cast a magic spell right when the characters needed him.

What is the point of any of this? Well, once we get to land, that seems obvious. The point was to contrive some sort of live-action/CGI scenario that would allow the producers to blow money on the 3-D build treatment that has beensooooooo popular in films such as The Smurfs and Yogi Bear. This is the Out Of Water portion of the film that made up ALL of the marketing, and it would be alarming how little of the film it actually took up if it weren’t actually a relief – thank goodness most of the film sticks to the classic animation style of the TV series.

It is at this point that SpongeBob’s two most reliably funny sidekicks, his neighbors Patrick and Squidward, finally get something mildly substantial to do joke-wise, but it’s all drowned out by a superhero film climax that is actually too scattered to even be any sort of satire of how scattered superhero film climaxes are. The whole enterprise wraps up with a heartfelt moment for Plankton who, with his long-coveted recipe in hand, fully embraces teamwork (even saying it correctly) and hands the recipe over to Mr. Krabs.

That sounds like character growth right? So why do I have such a big thorn in my toe with this movie? Because, the next minute, Plankton is up to his old tricks again in Bikini Bottom. “Why?” he is asked (both by the characters in the film, and by me, aloud, in the theater). His answer boils down to, well, because it’s what the audience expects. This is the perfect “Ain’t I a stinker?” capper to an eleven minute cartoon, and an absolute vacuum of an ending for a feature film. Essentially, it’s an admission that none of this matters; Planton can’t be good because the still-thriving television series needs Plankton to be bad. The whole film ends where the next episode would begin – with the opening theme. It’s fitting for a film this pointlessly circuitous. That the theme is introduced by a movie star and has an interlude featuring a space dolphin and talking seagulls performing a rap battle written by the Epic Rap Battles of History guys speaks to this film’s lack of confidence in its own inspired and durable creations. These rando charactes’ interpretation of the cheery sea shanty promises “nautical nonsense” and that’s exactly what we’ve gotten: a 92 minute string of gags that, put together, make… no… sense…

I know, it’s a picky gripe if you are a large enough fan of SpongeBob’s humor to want to see it puffed out to extremes like… well… like Mrs. Puff. This film has really found the film critic community in a generous mood, and I think if I’d found new creations like Bubbles the Dolphin and Burger-Beard as inspired as they do, I might have enjoyed it too. But, keep this in mind – there was never any rule written that decreed: Shorts and television cartoons are the little leagues; Feature length films are the big leagues.

SpongeBob does not need to be called up to the bigs every ten years to be validated. Nickelodeon segments are his big leagues. If the feature-length format doesn’t suit him, we do not need to keep forcing the issue. We can, in fact, keep the Sponge in the Water.