SpongeBob SquarePants is coming to our world — for about 20 minutes. If you have any hopes of seeing the land-based adventures of everyone’s favorite subsea pineapple dweller in “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water,” then you’re in for a shocking disappointment. Despite what the film’s trailers and promotional materials would have you believe, much of the story takes place underwater in a second lackluster (and flat-out strange) cinematic outing for our absorbent, yellow and porous hero.
Released Feb. 6, a whopping 11 years after the far superior “SpongeBob SquarePants Movie,” “Sponge Out of Water” is not a promising reason for a continuation of a show whose quality has been on the decline since the beginning of its fourth season, when Paul Tibbitt took over the post of show-runner from series creator Stephen Hillenburg. While it was intended for the beloved cartoon to end after the first movie, its success led Nickelodeon to order more episodes. Good for business, bad for viewers.
In this feature, directed by Tibbitt and produced by Hillenburg, you’ll find no Hasselhoff, Patty Wagon or Goofy Goober Rock. When the Krabby Patty formula goes missing, Bikini Bottom falls on hard times, forcing SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) and Plankton (Doug Lawrence) to team up to try and get it back from the live action Burger-Beard (Antonio Banderas is pretty good as the dastardly scalawag) who is in possession of a magical book. What results is an 11-minute episode that is stretched way beyond its running time into an hour and a half, a complaint made in reference to the “Hey Arnold!” movie back in 2002.
The film’s got some merits, like a promising real-life opening in the spirit of “Pirates of the Caribbean.” There’s also a hilariously sugary sequence inside SpongeBob’s brain, bizarre time-traveling montages and the arrival of an extra-dimensional porpoise named Bubbles. Even though the animation is already crisp and vibrant, it becomes more interesting when it meshes with the real world as SpongeBob, Patrick, Mr. Krabs, Squidward and Sandy finally end up on dry land near the end. Then they become like some new form of the International Justice League of Super Acquaintances (while not the same without Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy, there is a dedication to Ernest Borgnine). However, this comes too little too late and can’t compensate for the moments when it feels like the writers dug to the bottom of the barrel for seagull poop and fart gags. Not to mention a forgettable number about teamwork that pales into comparison to the “F.U.N. Song” from season one. A good chunk of the soundtrack may have been written by Pharrell Williams, but I can hardly remember any tune worth mentioning.
It’s hard to believe that SpongeBob has been around since 1999. He’s become a cultural icon who’s not only on television, but also comes in the form of backpacks, folders, plush toys and video games. Like everything else that appeals to children, the show’s sold out. That would be fine with me if the content were still any good. I grew up with SpongeBob and, as a die-hard fan, could talk at length about the Hash-Slinging Slasher, the Bubble Bowl halftime show, or Weenie Hut Jr.’s with anyone willing to listen to my immature recall.
Yet, it’s heartbreaking to see no intelligent humor or care put into “Sponge Out of Water.” There’s no disputing that it looks nice, but something’s wrong when it only panders to kids. Gone is the emotional punch and epic sense of adventure that made the first movie so great. The first movie actually explored meaningful themes like growing up and the misconceptions about what kids can accomplish. Admit it, you also teared up when SpongeBob and Patrick shriveled up under the scorching gaze of a heat lamp in Shell City. With the quasi-sequel, you’ve got a movie with substantially less substance, whose sole purpose seems to be selling as many toys as it can without taking us elder folks into account. Maybe I’m just an old fogey, out of touch with today’s hip ways. For all I know, the film will prove to be a classic for young children who will one day become as jaded as I am and look back on it with a certain fondness. After all, it’s “Are ya ready, kids?” not “Are ya ready, grandpas?”
Now in its ninth season, the SpongeBob SquarePants brand is still going strong. More importantly, it was recently announced that Hillenburg will be returning to the show to play a part in its creation once again. Perhaps he can restore the happy-go-lucky underwater fry cook to his former glory and end the series with the dignity that it deserves. Is such a thing possible? Will it ever end? As the magic conch would tell you, “Maybe someday.”