It’s weird seeing a SpongeBob movie being made today. The last movie was over a decade ago, and the TV show, while still running, is not the phenomenon it once was. The 2004 movie marked the end of creator Stephen Hillenberg’s time as showrunner, and his departure is generally viewed as the series’ “jump the shark” moment. For me, the biggest hook of seeing The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water is that it drew Hillenberg out of retirement to co-storyboard the picture. Could the absurd magic of his early episodes (not to mention his work on Rocko’s Modern Life) return?
The verdict: sort of.
Let this be clear: 80% of the advertising for Sponge Out of Water is focused on 20% of the actual movie. The “out of water” bit, where SpongeBob and pals wander around the live-action shore as CG creations and buff up to become superheroes, lasts 10-20 minutes at most. The CG/live-action bits are commendable in that (with the exception of one notable visual gag) they retain cartooniness and avoid the Uncanny Valley effect of, say, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Antonio Banderas is entertaining as the live-action villain Burgerbeard. The bulk of the film, though, is appealing hand-drawn animation. It’s so rare to see a traditionally animated feature in American multiplexes, and kind of sad that they had to pretend this wasn’t as such in the advertising, and it’s a treat. Somehow it even looks great in 3D, probably since SpongeBob‘s mixed-media aesthetic is suited for such gimmickry.
Yet while the throwback nature of the movie is likeable in regards to its animation, there’s other ways it’s underwhelming. There’s nothing outright bad (though the first act is maybe too pun-heavy), but there’s very little new. The main story’s comprised of elements of older episodes, “F.U.N.” mixed with bits of “Frankendoodle” meets “SB-129.” Those were great episodes, so this competent retread is pleasant enough, but it feels safe, lacking the zaniness and invention of classic SpongeBob (also seriously lacking in Squidward, the best character). Even the movie’s most “modern” element, a well-done ending number by the Epic Rap Battles of History guys, relies heavily on nostalgia for the older episodes. There’s bursts of surrealist creativity in the Mad Max dystopia a Krabby Patty-free Bikini Bottom becomes, in Plankton’s trip inside SpongeBob’s brain (with shades of Adventure Time, a cartoon that really deserves a movie of its own) and in the mid-movie sausage-taco-powered time machine segment, I just wish they were more frequent.
On balance, Sponge Out of Water is enjoyable if not outstanding. It’d be a fitting send-off for the show if Nick wasn’t planning on keeping it going for as long as it can. It’s less like digging up an unseen SpongeBob classic and more like an afternoon marathon of old favorites. If that sounds appealing to you, it’s probably worth checking out.