A few admissions up front: I am a huge SpongeBob SquarePants fan. While even as an adult I’ve obviously never stopped watching cartoons, when my first child was born I had an excuse to watch even more. SpongeBob had just recently premiered. The show was a big family favorite and has literally been part of our TV watching routine all of my kids’ lives. However, I’m also a kinda picky guy. (It’s kind of a job prerequisite for a critic!) And like another of my favorites, The Simpsons, I’m one of those people who has lamented over the decline in quality of the show as the years have gone on. The first four seasons were definitely the golden age of SpongeBob. Since then, in my opinion, things have gotten… stupid for lack of a more tactful word! All the characters have lost 50 IQ points and become one-dimensional. The situations have gone from imaginative but grounded in a (cartoony!) reality, to repetitive over the top insanity. Story has taken a backseat to gags. And through it all the whole thing lost a lot of heart. This may should harsh, but it’s all said out of a love of what the show used to be. And unfortunately that harshness will have to continue as I review the second big screen feature in the franchise, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water.

sbsp1Normally, this is where I would give a short synopsis of the plot. While there is a string of a story that weaves throughout the film, for the most part the movie almost comes across as several episodes woven together. We get that episode where Plankton tries to steal the Krabby Patty formula. Then there’s the episode where Bikini Bottom and all its residents go nuts and society breaks down. Then there’s the episode where SpongeBob tries to teach Plankton the meaning of a “team” — complete with a song break. Then there’s the time travel episode. Sprinkled between these segments and finally gotten to in the last act is what you were probably expecting if you watched any trailers or commericals for the film — the live action parts with a magic book, Antonio Banderas as a pirate, and the main cast as CG superheroes. That’s right, almost everything they’ve promoted this film as being in actuality is just the end of the movie.

Maybe because we were all expecting something else (but more likely because it’s the norm in so many episodes these days), the movie felt like it was half full of filler material and wild tangents. Also like too many episodes, some of the storylines were just plain ridiculous. I know, that sounds like a silly accusation to make about a show where a talking sponge makes hamburgers for a living! But the best shows — and even the first movie — were always grounded to a reality we could relate to: SpongeBob tries to impress a girl, SpongeBob forgets how to tie his shoes, SpongeBob has a bully at school, SpongeBob tries to make money selling chocolate door-to-door, or even SpongeBob has to help the king find his missing crown by going on a long journey. Here we get a magic book that can rewrite reality, a dolphin who oversees the universe and shoots lasers, and a time traveling photo booth. Again, I get that sometimes SpongeBob, and cartoons in general, gets leeway to bend the laws of our physical existence. (Unlike Patrick, I’ve never questioned the fact that they have fire underwater!) But so much of this film feels like trippy acid fueled flights of fancy. And, maybe worse, trippy acid fueled flights of fancy with just a tenuous connection of a story.

All that said, the bits of plot that make up the story they promoted in commercials was actually a lot of fun. The superhero storyline was short but enjoyable. And there was plenty of humor to be had throughout, even if it was at times random and nonsensical.

Seeing the CG versions of the original characters we’ve known for 15 years was interesting and the animators did a wonderful job translating them from their hand-drawn counterparts. And the superhero designs were fantastic and perfect for each character. While the CG animation may have been top notch, unfortunately the traditional animation was not. Like this movie, all of the recent episodes of the TV series feature a more precise, probably highly computer-aided animated style, which feels overly clinical and loses a lot of the warmth compared with the more free, imperfect animation from the first years of the series. But worse, too many times some of the characters appeared to be off-model. Not in the humorous intentional way they sometimes do, but just badly and wrongly animated.

sbsp2Music, and singing, have always been a big part of the series. Songs like F.U.N., Ripped Pants, Texas, Loop de Loop, and The Campfire Song Song, and even just short snippets of songs like That’s What Friends Do, Indoors, and Striped Sweater are cartoon classics and instant earworms. But like the rest of the production, the quality of the songs has gone downhill over the years as well. That trend continued here with a completely unmemorable song between SpongeBob and Plankton. The score, while functional was just as unremarkable.

It’s hard to judge the voice acting in a movie based on a long running TV series. The main cast of Tom Kenny, Bill Fagerbakke, Rodger Bumpass, Clancy Brown, Mr. Lawrence, and Carolyn Lawrence all return and all do their usual stellar job. Here, at least, is one area where the quality has not diminished since the show premiered. And SpongeBob newcomer Antonio Banderas was hilarious in a part that didn’t give him a lot to work with.

If this all seemed overly critical, it’s because I really do love the show and the characters and was hoping for something so much better. With the reports that series creator Stephen Hillenburg is returning to the show this year there is hope for a turnaround. Like the series, kids will love this movie. But for us adults who miss the old days, this is one sponge who should’ve stayed underwater.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water
Paramount, Nickelodeon
February 6, 2015
93 minutes
Rated PG
directed by Paul Tibbitt