The latest trip to Bikini Bottom soaks the sea in garish CG animation and a creaky level of sentiment, though some of the show’s surreal delights remain.
Early on in The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run, the third cinematic iteration of the long-running Nickelodeon series SpongeBob Squarepants — after 2004’s The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie and 2015’s The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water — the Tim Hill-directed road movie flashes us back to the childhood of our absorbent, yellow, porous protagonist (voiced by Tom Kenny) and his first meeting with his beloved snail, Gary. By the time the film’s over, we’ll learn that all of SpongeBob’s friends — Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), Squidward (Rodger Bumpass), Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown), and the rest — all met as kids in an undersea summer camp called Kamp Koral.
It’s a contrivance that rings as artificial until you realize that the film essentially acts as a launching pad for the spinoff Kamp Koral: SpongeBob’s Under Years, which coincidentally launches on Paramount+ (the rebranded version of CBS All Access) the same day this film drops on the rebranded streaming service. This is true right down to the switch from SpongeBob‘s traditional 2D animation, reminiscent of Ren and Stimpy, to the detailed-but-garish 3D animation style characteristic of the new spinoff. The move is cute but calculated, something that makes Sponge on the Run even more thin and disposable than it seems at first glance.
The original series’ appeal lay not just in its colorful, endearingly weird characters, but in its short-but-sweet vignettes that never ran more than 12 or 13 minutes long. You could plop SpongeBob and the gang into one kooky scenario after another, resolve it before it wore out its welcome, and move on. Sponge on the Run, meanwhile, mires us in a formulaic (albeit self-awarely so) road trip rescue mission, in which SpongeBob and Patrick head to “The Lost City of Atlantic City” to rescue Gary, who’s been snail-napped by the vain King Poseidon (Matt Berry) as the latest tool in his skin-care regimen.
Along the way, they run afoul of murderous robots (Awkwafina, her second voice role this week apart from her more substantive one in Raya and the Last Dragon), pirate zombie cowboys who shuffle to the beat of Snoop Dogg (who cameos), and develop a gambling addiction while “Livin’ La Vida Loca” blasts ad nauseam.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of the late, great Stephen Hillenburg‘s signature surrealism in here, and the core characters bring their eccentricities over to the “big” screen without skipping a beat. Some of the film’s best bits are those throwaway gags around which an entire SpongeBob episode would normally center — like a bizarre trip to a live-action Western town, or the David Attenborough-style intro that tries to lend Bikini Bottom a bit more gravitas than usual.
We even get Keanu Reeves in a delightful cameo as Sage, a wise tumbleweed who just can’t keep our dynamic duo on task (he’s great here, though the move feels a year or two out of step with his most recent tenure as the Internet’s boyfriend).
Sponge on the Run hews a bit too close to convention for comfort.
But these moments of signature Hillenburg absurdity are frustratingly couched in a too-long story that tries very hard to slot itself into the formulas typical of modern-day kid’s movies. There are plenty of celebrity cameos for the adults (Tiffany Haddish, Reggie Watts, and Danny Trejo) and catchy tunes for the kids, courtesy of Weezer and the show’s cast. And everything has to be wrapped up in a tidy message about friendship, which takes center stage in a creaky third act that sees our ensemble professing their adoration for each other.
It’s a weird move, considering much of the show’s appeal lies in the tension between the sprightly SpongeBob and the characters who can’t stand him. Where do we go from here when we find out that Squidward and Mr. Krabs have always had a soft spot for the little yellow guy all along? Not only that, he’s been the key to their love of clarinet-playing and burger-making business since the beginning? It’s a very neat, tidy bow to pay at the feet of some of the best rivalries in children’s entertainment, all to build up a Muppet Babies-esque spinoff that needs a reason for these characters to be together as kids.
All of this is not to say Sponge on the Run is a disaster. Of the three kids’ movies that have come out in the past week, it’s far from the best and far from the worst. And let’s be honest; if you’ve got a young one clawing at the walls at home a year into quarantine, you won’t be mad throwing this one on as a welcome distraction. But as an entry in the long, hallowed history of one of Nickelodeon’s most inventive, delightful series, Sponge on the Run hews a bit too close to convention for comfort.
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run is currently playing on Paramount+ (formerly CBS All Access).