In 2004, I got a dream newspaper assignment from the New York Times: to fly to L.A. and talk to Stephen Hillenburg and his colleagues about turning their Nickelodeon smash SpongeBob SquarePants into a feature film. On TV, the SpongeBob cartoons were 11 minutes, the perfect length of time to be bombarded by free-form, surreal gags, inevitably interspersed by the high-pitched chortle of their happy-go-lucky sea-sponge hero. But how would a full-length movie play? Hillenburg was convinced that the same level of intensity over 80-plus minutes would wear the audience out — that a feature needed a more conventional narrative arc and more even pacing. And you know what? He was wrong. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie had great bits and a terrific soundtrack, but it was a tad … stately. That story structure was like an anchor weighing it down. Missing were those free-associational spasms of craziness that make SpongeBob at its best so irrationally entertaining.
Now, a decade later, comes The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, which looks as if it cost less. (The soundtrack isn’t as rich and there are no celebrity voices.) The opening makes little sense and what follows makes less. If there’s a narrative structure, I missed it — the story line is slipshod and shambolic. The few song fragments are punishingly discordant, and it’s visually an eyesore — a kaleidoscope of bright, mismatched colors, and in 3-D, too, to guarantee you’ll get a headache. It’s big, loud, choppy, in-your-face, and absolutely, positively glorious. Second time’s the charm.
It begins, as usual, with a hairy pirate, who’s there to sing the SpongeBob theme that whisks us to the undersea world of Bikini Bottom, with its ukulele music and flower-cloud backdrops … but wait: He’s played by Antonio Banderas (in the flesh!), and he’s in the middle of an Indiana Jones–like quest to steal a magic book. After dueling with a reanimated skeleton and shushing some card-playing seagulls, the Pirate opens said mysterious tome and begins to read a tale of wholesale destruction, societal collapse, rampaging mobs, and mass starvation. It’s the End of Days in Bikini Bottom.
What could usher in the apocalypse? What else? The loss of the secret recipe for the wildly addictive Krabby Patties from the Krusty Krab restaurant where SpongeBob works and his best friend Patrick the fat, pink, imbecilic starfish eats. I know what you’re thinking! This has to be the work of Plankton, the tiny but very loud and jealous owner of the rival Chum Bucket restaurant. And you’d be right, but only to a point. Yes, Plankton did engineer a scheme involving pickle torpedoes, a giant robot, and a Trojan-horse-like coin to get into the Krusty Krab’s safe, but the recipe’s disappearance has an even more sinister — and possibly supernatural — source.
No spoilers. Actually, I couldn’t spoil it if I wanted, since I’m not entirely sure what I saw and, anyway, these jokes don’t translate. I can tell you that the lack of Krabby Patties causes disturbing changes in Patrick and also, sadly, Gary the snail — it’s like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery down there. The only hope rests with SpongeBob (vocals — and chortles — by the great Tom Kenney) and Plankton (vocals by “Mr. Lawrence,” who sounds like Fred Flintstone on crystal meth), who team up despite Plankton’s inability (being so self-centered) to pronounce the word team. Tee-am. Teerrm. At a certain point, I lost the narrative thread. There’s a time machine and then another spatial-temporal dimension, and then the whole gang morphs into very ugly 3-D figures and even uglier Marvel-esque superheroes in a battle to the death with the unexpected supervillain. I prefer SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward, et al. as flat as possible and wasn’t happy to see them go all Shrek. But the jokes came as thick and fast as seagull poop, which also came, so it was okay.
Apropos of the bewildering plot twists: I was reading a book on how to write (no nasty cracks, it was written by an alt goddess) that mentions tricks to get your imagination going, like opening a random book to a random page and using random words to create something magical. I wonder if that was the inspiration for the extraterrestrial bottlenose dolphin whose Shakespearean orations are broken by sudden clicks and chatters and whose job is keeping the planets Jupiter and Saturn from colliding. Either that or Hillenburg, director Paul Tibbitt, and writers Glenn Berger and Jonathan Aibel are experimenting on their own brains. I felt as if they were experimenting on mine, too, and I was loving it so much, I might see The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water again this weekend. Its lunacy is addictive — it’s a Krabby Patty for the mind.