To try to describe a SpongeBob Squarepants movie is to flirt with madness. The narratives jump through so many hoops, turn on such tenuous connections, and are ultimately so surreal that mere words and the earthbound thoughts they describe become inadequate. Watching one of these movies is like having a vision of Cthulhu; you walk away from the experience a changed person, possibly raving about the apocalypse.
Anyway, all this is to say that The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run, which is finally seeing the light of day on these shores (on Paramount+) after almost a year’s worth of pandemic-related release delays, is utterly demented and magnificent. It follows SpongeBob and his best friend Patrick as they go on a dream quest/road trip to the Lost City of Atlantic City, a glittering, neon-drenched metropolis where the vain, domineering King Poseidon is keeping SpongeBob’s pet snail, Gary, captive, using its slime for facials that keep his face young and healthy. It’s all a scheme engineered by the show’s primary nemesis, Plankton, who comes up with this demonic plot only after yet another of his attempts to land the secret recipe for Krabby Patties ends with him getting stuck in a French-fry cutter and having the long slivers of his sliced-up body dumped into an industrial-strength deep fryer, an image I have not been able to shake from my brain for weeks now.
Along the way, there’s a Western ghost town populated by zombie cowboys, where our heroes meet a rolling, sentient tumbleweed soothsayer known as Sage, portrayed by a gently aflame Keanu Reeves. There’s a whole bit where they become gambling addicts and lose their minds. There’s an elaborate courtroom trial. There’s medieval combat, and one of the funniest chase scenes I’ve seen recently, during which Plankton disappears up Patrick’s butt crack. Friendships are won and lost, and new friends made, with at least two covers of “My Heart Will Go On.” It’s Thelma and Louise meets The Quick and the Dead meets Inception meets Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar meets Rain Man meets Inherit the Wind, and somehow it’s also a summer-camp movie? I’ve seen this thing three times, and I’m still wondering if I might have dreamt half of it.
The world of SpongeBob has, of course, always operated on a kind of dream logic, but the feature films give it enough runway to take off into true craziness. There’s actually a creative risk there: It could all get to be too much, and the temptation must be there to just throw a bunch of random, ridiculous ideas and movie references together and call it a day, hoping to coast on sheer brazen absurdism.
It all has to connect, somehow. At the heart of SpongeBob’s appeal is the show’s paradoxical ability to be 100 percent earnest and 100 percent ironic at the same time, as if to prove that its gonzo metatextual indulgences are somehow inextricably linked to its sincerity. SpongeBob’s goodness — the serene, noble simplicity of his worldview — repeatedly triumphs over the wink-wink cynicism around him, but his is always a very accepting, generous victory, one that seems to acknowledge that the world runs on both wiseassery and kindness. The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run will entertain you, for sure, but it might also help you become a better person.