THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Nickelodeon’s “SpongeBob SquarePants” is one of those rare cartoons that has nearly as many adult fans as child fans. Since its debut a few years ago, the program and its characters have achieved pop icon status among all age groups. It seems as though all Nickelodeon shows eventually find their way into cinemas, but The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is one of the few that actually seems to deserve the big screen treatment.

Set, of course, in the undersea town of Bikini Bottom, the film finds SpongeBob expecting to be promoted to manager of the Krusty Krab restaurant. When the owner, Mr. Krabs, fails to give him that promotion, SpongeBob indulges in an ice cream bender with best friend Patrick the starfish. Meanwhile, evil amoeba Plankton, who runs the less successful Chum Bucket eatery, unleashes “Plan Z” – a dastardly attempt to steal the Krusty Krab’s secret recipe for Krabby Patties, those oceanic delicacies that no one can resist.

Plan Z involves stealing the crown from King Neptune (voiced by Jeffrey Tambor) and framing the owner of the Krusty Krab for the theft. Once Neptune has put Mr. Krabs into a deep freeze as punishment, Plankton is able to walk away with the recipe. The only way to set things right is to locate the crown, which is allegedly being hidden in a dangerous far-off land known as Shell City. Despite the doubts of almost everyone, SpongeBob volunteers to make the journey. Patrick decides to accompany him, and Neptune’s daughter Mindy (Scarlett Johansson) offers moral support. Our spongy hero needs it, especially when he encounters a fishy bounty hunter named Dennis (Alec Baldwin) who has been sent to exterminate him.

What separates “SpongeBob SquarePants” from other cartoons is that the humor is more original and offbeat than most cartoons. It doesn’t traffic in the usual slapstick shenanigans that countless Looney Tunes wannabes have failed to pull off. Nor does it have that self-conscious, manufactured hipness that makes some tunes painful to watch. Instead, “SpongeBob” mixes childlike innocence with a subtle adult sensibility. Kids dig it on one level, while adults can enjoy it on several levels. It’s like “Ren and Stimpy” without all the grossout jokes.

SpongeBob’s humor translates well to the movie format, as does the very unique style of the animation. One of the most appealing things about the inhabitants of Bikini Bottom is that they’re cartoon characters unlike any we’ve ever seen before. No cute talking animals or precocious kids here. The way they are drawn is also very colorful and humorously detailed. The visual style has always been fun for me to watch; seeing it blown up onto a movie screen is animation nirvana. Somehow, the sheer wackiness of it all seems magnified.

The other thing I really like about The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is that it dreams big. While still maintaining the considerable charms of the TV show, the creative team has taken advantage of the possibilities a feature film offers, namely the chance to be more ambitious. The opening live action sequence, for instance, gives new meaning to the term “movie piracy.” (I won’t spoil the joke, but it’s a good one.) Best of all is the finale, during which SpongeBob and Patrick make their way out of the ocean and onto dry land. As their mission concludes, they meet “Baywatch” star David Hasselhoff, who provides some much needed assistance (and earns the Good Sport of the Year award in the process). What happens is sublimely ridiculous – and absolutely hilarious. Rather than just being an 82-minute episode of the TV show, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie expands the concept in ways well suited to the big screen.

The chief complaint by SpongeBob purists is likely to be the fact that some of the supporting characters – Squidward, Sandy, Gary – don’t get very much screen time. Hopefully we’ll see more of them in the sequel. As it stands, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is a non-stop treat for fans of the series and a solid introduction for newcomers. There are lots of big laughs and moments of real comic inspiration. Besides, who among us can resist the site of a sea sponge in tighty whiteys?

( 1/2 out of four)

Note: Keep in mind that this review was written by someone who is a big fan of the show. I think that SpongeBob newbies may very much enjoy the film, but they might also think that I have overrated it slightly. SpongeBob fanatics, on the other hand, will likely share my enthusiasm.

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is rated PG for mild crude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 22 minutes.

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