“Are you ready [for change], kids?”
Whether you say “Aye, Aye, Captain!” or not, the change is here with the third theatrical film in the SpongeBob cinematic universe, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run. For 21 years of their existence, SpongeBob SquarePants and the denizens of Bikini Bottom have primarily been presented entirely as 2D creations, established as such by creator Stephen Hillenburg in doodles, and then in the television series SpongeBob SquarePants.
But The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run, which debuted in Canadian theaters in 2020 and finally arrives in the U.S. on Paramount+ on March 4, the underwater world gets the CGI treatment that’s become the majority medium of almost all theatrical animated releases. For SpongeBob purists, this likely signifies a huge punch to the gut of traditional animation and Bikini Bottom itself. However, there’s also the argument that, before Hillenburg’s tragic passing in 2018 of ALS, he saw the test animation and gave it his blessing, so it’s an experiment of evolution in the yellow porous one’s ongoing legacy. Ultimately though, the only determination that really matters is whether or not The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run is any good, and in the opinion of one who loves animation in general—and the SpongeBob oeuvre in specific—the answer is yes.
There are many reasons why SpongeBob SquarePants has endured more than two decades of steadfast love and pop culture relevance. Part of it is the enduring positivity and ridiculousness of SpongeBob (Tom Kenny), Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) and the entire populace of their world. The characters are self-referential, consistent to their defining traits and the writers have always created a duality of experience: Silliness for kids and a sly ascendance of wit that appeals directly to the older viewers. The mode in which the funny is served needs to have all of that present to work. Director/writer Tim Hill (who also wrote 2004’s original The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie) understands that in this first, all-3D presentation.
Hill and his team of artists—including Mikros Image, which is responsible for the CGI animation—play it smart by introducing a subtle transition for the view in the opening of Sponge on the Run. Gorgeous, photorealistic CGI of the underwater world transitions to the familiar color palette and stylized look of Hillenburg’s corner of the ocean, just with more presence and tactile flourishes. From Gary’s snail slime coming across as tangible goop to scratches in Sandy Cheeks’ breathing dome, the movie doesn’t aim to overwhelm audiences with overt tech bells and whistles. Instead, it presents the characters and world as an opportunity to experience the familiar in a new light, like appreciating the miniscule scale of a 3D-generated Plankton in comparison to his explosive rage—which makes him all the more hilarious.
The scale of the film’s narrative—as the prior two films have done—puts SpongeBob and Patrick on a road trip, this time to retrieve Gary the Snail (Kenny) from a snail-napping in the Lost City of Atlantic City. He’s filched from afar by the unctuous King Poseidon (perfectly voiced by Matt Berry). Their quest puts the BFFs in the backseat of Plankton’s loaned ride, driven by Sandy’s errant robot creation, Otto (Awkwafina), reprogrammed by the tiny mastermind as a distraction from his plan to steal Mr. Krab’s (Clancy Brown) Krabby Patty recipe. It’s not exactly a brain-shattering storyline, but it does the job of setting up opportunities for side adventures and a big third act showdown in the Lost City of Atlantic City that is a spot-on satire of casino culture as experienced by two idiots with no impulse control.
The excesses of SpongeBob and Patrick open the door for the best supporting character in the film, Sage, who is literally Keanu Reeves’ disembodied head set inside tumbleweed. They encounter the Zen soothsayer during a live-action pit-stop in Goner Gulch where they have to dispatch El Diablo (Danny Trejo), a bad hombre with an army of flesh-eating pirate zombies. Sage becomes their proverbial compass in completing their Gary mission, and maybe achieving self-enlightenment. If this whole paragraph reads like I suddenly speed-ate a pack of edibles, then that’s all you need to know in getting the tone of this movie.
Where the overall narrative might feel a bit pedestrian, like an oversized episode, Hill and the animators bring in a lot of liveliness with well-considered comedic sequences. These include some big third act action moments that put the 3D (within SpongeBob world constraints) to its best uses. The film also sprinkles in some Muppet Babies vibes in flashbacks to Kamp Koral, the summer camp where SpongeBob and his entire posse from Bikini Bottom met one another. It’s not exactly the most elegant of introductions to a future spin-off (the new Paramount+ CGI Kamp Koral: SpongeBob’s Under Years series also debuting on March 4), but the sequences are undeniably cute. And they do tie into the emotional trial in the last act that has each of the yellow guy’s circle standing up for their friend when he needs it most. That big moment also includes the only musical sequence of the film sung by the cast, “Secret to the Formula.” Maybe the movie needed one or two more lively musical numbers, considering how great the characters and their voice cast render them.
As another evolution in the ongoing SpongeBob universe, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run is a graceful and well-executed dip of the yellow toe into 3D waters. There’s overall respect for the characters and tone, and artistic merit to how they integrate the medium into the show’s standards for presenting the surreal and strange. Does it push the sponge forward? Probably not, and that’s ok. There’s something timeless about Bikini Bottom remaining as it is, with spin-offs and new series serving as the appropriate playgrounds for new outlets of storytelling. Sponge on the Run lovingly splits the difference, but doesn’t take anything away from what many know and love.
Directors: Tim Hill
Writers: Tim Hill
Stars: Tom Kenny, Awkwafina, Matt Berry, Snoop Dogg, Bill Fagerbakke, Clancy Brown, Tiffany Haddish, Carolyn Lawrence, Mr. Lawrence, Keanu Reeves, Danny Trejo, Reggie Watts
Release Date: March 4, 2021
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett
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