'SpongeBob' ventures ashore with mixed results

Betsy Sharkey
Los Angeles Times Film Critic
Says L.A. Times' @betsysharkey on new 'SpongeBob' movie: 'Prepare to giggle'

All of the strangely charming cartoony undersea nonsense of SpongeBob that's delighted kids and stoners for year comes to the surface in "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water." Prepare to giggle.

It's been a long, dry decade since 2004's "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie," though the ongoing TV series is ever-present to keep the flames fanned. This time out the very future of Bikini Bottom, SpongeBob's hometown, is at stake with the recipe for the residents' favorite food, Krabby Patties, gone missing. Recovering that irreplaceable treasure will require SpongeBob (voiced since the character's 1999 TV inception by Tom Kenny) to square his pants and eventually make his way above sea level, buffed up superhero style, to save the day.

The seemingly impossible mission also spawns an unlikely alliance between the porous-snaggletoothed-yellow-lad and his chief adversary, Plankton (Mr. Lawrence), whose devious plan to steal the Krabby recipe set the disaster in motion in the first place. Without Krabby Patties to satiate the insatiable Bikini Bottom appetites, the place undergoes an underwater meltdown of apocalyptic proportions. The deep-blue funk of Patrick (the starfish voiced by Bill Fagerbakke) was to be expected, but Bikini Bottom burning? Under the sea?

To right the wrong requires some serious time-and-space travel with the help of a souped-up photo booth and the mind power of Plankton's missus, Karen (Jill Talley as the computer W.I.F.E and other voices).

But if Plankton is not the nemesis, you may be wondering, who is? Well, that is one of the central conceits of "Sponge Out of Water," putting the real world, real people and real villains in the mix, albeit as reimagined through the SpongeBob prism.

The movie opens with a taste of that reality, a pirate named Burger Beard played by Antonio Banderas, turning up on a desert island to retrieve a mysterious book. That book is Burger Beard's primary reason to be in the film — he's there to read about SpongeBob's trials to a flock of insistent sea gulls (and any restless natives watching from their seats).

Frankly, I think Burger Beard's real purpose is to keep rewriting the movie's ending — courtesy of that book, a sea gull feather and some squid ink — anytime the real-life screenwriting team finds itself in a corner. It does help get SpongeBob out of some tight squeezes.

The story was ginned up by director Paul Tibbett, a "SpongeBob" veteran, and "SpongeBob" creator Stephen Hillenburg; the screenplay is written by the "Kung Fu Panda" team of Glenn Berger and Jonathan Aibel. A hold on reality — the human world's or SpongeBob's — is clearly not required. And that idea of Burger Beard adding new chapters goes completely overboard.

How else to explain SpongeBob and Plankton's trip to the outer reaches of the galaxy, or the porpoise, also out of water, who stands guard in the sky. And then there's the whole superhero segment, in which SpongeBob, Plankton and the rest of Bikini Bottom's main crew undergo a miraculous transformation from undersea losers to buffed-up action stars suddenly able to exist on land and, when necessary, serve up burgers and fries to hungry real-life humans. Don't ask.

As with all things SpongeBob, low-tech rules, not always to great effect when it comes to the effects.

In a computer-generated world where animation generally gets more and more spectacular with each advance, SpongeBob, Bikini Bottom and the rest look just like they do on TV. The 3-D bells and whistles promised by the ads is no big deal.

The more significant misstep is in trying to mesh the non-animated world of landlubbers with SpongeBob's. To put it bluntly, there is no meshing. So when Plankton, SpongeBob and friends step onto the beach for the first time, instead of a marvel, it looks like a bored kid superimposed cartoon characters onto a video of a crowded day at Venice Beach.

That mash-up mess — so bad, so un-bold — might have been enough to sink an ordinary ship. What saves the film is that it is also packed to the gills with the classic slapstick sweetness that makes SpongeBob — in or out of water, on big screen or small — hard not to laugh at and love at least a little. Giggle, giggle.


'The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water'

MPAA rating: PG for mild action and rude humor

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: In general release

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