It’s difficult to describe “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” without sounding like someone who’s been hitting the medical marijuana a little too hard.
“So, okay: It’s a comedy about an animated sponge who teams with his archrival, a one-eyed, scheming plankton, to retrieve the missing secret recipe for a crabcake sandwich that’s very popular at an underwater restaurant. For a while, it has a real post-apocalyptic vibe. Oh, and there’s a time machine that’s built out of a photo booth, a computer, a cuckoo clock and some hot dogs. And there’s also a talking dolphin. And . . . look, it makes more sense during the parts where the narrator, Antonio Banderas dressed as a pirate, is reading a book.”
Anyone who’s seen an episode of “SpongeBob SquarePants” or the first theatrical release it inspired, 2004’s “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie,” will read that, um, plot description as semi-standard fare for a SpongeBob adventure. Since the porous, giggle-prone cartoon hero made his debut on Nickelodeon in 1999, he’s been repeatedly involved in shenanigans that range from just plain silly to straight-up surreal. In the first movie, SpongeBob actually rode David Hasselhoff as if he were a human speedboat, okay? When this little knee-sock-wearing organism is around, things tend to get weird.
In “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water,” things get weird, too, but in a way that lacks the often infectious absurdity of the series and the previous movie. This iteration attempts to cross new animation boundaries while sticking closely to pre-established SpongeBob plot templates, resulting in a film that’s neither fully fresh nor comfortingly familiar. Instead, it’s stuck in so-so-ville.
Once again, our absorbent wearer of symmetrically shaped slacks (voice of Tom Kenny) must attempt to restore order at the Krusty Krab, where an inability to crank out the fast food joint’s beloved Krabby Patties has thrust all of Bikini Bottom into “Mad Max” levels of chaos. All the usual SpongeBob characters — dopey Patrick (voice of Bill Fagerbakke), cranky Squidward (Rodger Bumpass), the aforementioned evil Plankton (Mr. Lawrence), etc. — make appearances and eventually join SpongeBob in his efforts to track down the missing Krabby Patty formula. As in the previous movie, those efforts eventually take SpongeBob and Co. out of their standard animated milieu and thrust them into a live-action, above-ground setting.
That “Out of Water” element — which transforms the characters into CGI, claylike beings (the better to see in expensive 3-D, my dear) — has been the primary focus of the trailers and commercials for this film, which makes it extra frustrating when we don’t get to the “out of water” part until a third act that takes far too long to arrive. The movie spends too much time in the mire of Bikini Bottom’s post-apocalypse, finding only intermittent success at mining that situation, and others, for comedy.
One running gag, in which Plankton struggles to properly pronounce the word “team,” is funny at first, but stops being laughable long before screenwriters Glenn Berger and Jonathan Aibel (“Kung Fu Panda”) have abandoned their attempt to sell it to the audience. (Paul Tibbitt, the showrunner for the Nickelodeon series who co-directs the movie, and Stephen Hillenburg, an executive producer of this movie and the creator of “SpongeBob,” have story credits.)
There’s something about this project that, despite checking all of the requisite plot and sensibility boxes, doesn’t convey as an organic work of SpongeBob-ishness. It feels more like something cooked up by Paramount and Nickelodeon to make sure that SpongeBob, a multi-billion-dollar cash generator for their parent company, Viacom, continues to stay relevant, both with the kids who watch Nickelodeon and the 20-somethings who view SpongeBob as an object of nostalgia.
“The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” is like the family movie equivalent of a Krabby Patty: It tastes fine and will satisfy some cravings. But it’s ultimately a product cranked out to make money and keep our consumer-driven society, much like Bikini Bottom’s, chugging along without significant disruption.
Chaney is a freelance writer.
PG. At area theaters. Contains
mild action and rude humor.