By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 12, 2007
When the funniest thing about a film is its title, you know you're in trouble, or at considerable risk of being horribly bored. Such is sadly the case with "Atlantis SquarePantis," the new 45-minute SpongeBob SquarePants movie premiering tonight on the Nickelodeon cable network.
The "movie" -- about three times the length of a traditional SpongeBob episode -- suffers from an excessive infusion of sallow, sappy songs, all of them taking valuable time away from the satirical shenanigans that have helped "SpongeBob's" adult viewership increase by 87 percent since the show's premiere in mid-1999. Of the roughly 64.5 million viewers who tune in to this alleged children's show each month, 30.7 million are 18 and over, or so Nielsen research indicates.
Faithful fans may be impressed by the improved color, slightly more elaborate animation and wide-screen aspect ratio of the movie, but such pleasures are superficial; a typical episode has at least as many laughs as this inflated version does. The overall dreariness of the scenario and the tone of smiley innocuousness suggest that the world's most famous sponge has been, gulp, Disneyfied.
Oh, woe! Misericordia! Cheese and crackers!
It's dismaying to find SpongeBob having gone suddenly squishy on us. He's lost his backbone, even though technically he never had one. And why? Apparently so that Viacom, the proprietary conglomerate, can squeeze a few more drops of dough out of the dear old blob (DVDs of "Atlantis SquarePantis" go on sale tomorrow; a "SquarePantis" videogame for PlayStation 2 just came out, and so on).
As the film begins, SpongeBob's lovably flabby and clueless friend Patrick Star is attempting to shoot Polaroids of elaborately shaped bubbles blown by the sponge in the relative safety of their Bikini Bottom bog. Unfortunately this activity precipitates a song about bubbles; later, the always avaricious Mr. Krabs will sing a song about money, and Squidward, the cranky aspiring artist and classical musician, will sing a song about art.
Indeed, the psychedelicky bus (the "Magic Bus" of a '60s ditty, perchance?) that eventually transports the sponge and his friends -- and one enemy, Plankton, stowing away in the glove compartment -- to the fabled lost city of Atlantis runs not on fossil fuels, which are properly denigrated, but on music. And that's another excuse to jam still more numbing numbers into the narrative.
Each character finds in Atlantis the fulfillment of a personally cherished desire. Mr. Krabs wallows in golden treasure, while the megalomaniacal Plankton discovers, to his perverse delight, a cache of weapons of mass destruction (if there's political satire afoot, it's strictly on tiptoe). Squidward, acclaiming the place "a fabulous artistic paradise," romps through various masterpieces, among them Grant Wood's inescapable "American Gothic."
Of course, faithful viewers will be unimpressed, as they will have seen SpongeBob effortlessly sculpt a replica of Michelangelo's "David" from a block of marble in a previous regular episode of the series.
There are other, less felicitous references. As it happens, and it does, the population of Atlantis includes an army of bad soldiers who bear a considerable resemblance to the Blue Meanies of the Beatles' famous animated aquatic adventure, "Yellow Submarine." Leading the pack is a character known as the Lord Royal Highness, who suggests, at least to some degree, the Nowhere Man of the same film.
Happily enough, Lord Royal Highness is voiced by David Bowie, the innovative rock star of yesteryear, and it sounds from his vocal aerobics as if he's having a lot of fun in the role. But the Atlantis adventures of the semi-intrepid little band -- searching for and, naturally, destroying the World's Oldest Bubble -- are tired. Perhaps the writers and producers imagined they were cleverly spoofing traditional children's stories about magical kingdoms, but "SquarePantis" seems to be playing it unimaginatively straight. And flat.
Atlantis SquarePantis (one hour) airs tonight at 8 p.m. on Nickelodeon.