The third “SpongeBob” feature dazzles visually, but again squanders the show’s endearing appeal

By: Steve Pulaski

I recall being intensely skeptical of the second SpongeBob movie when the posters and previews touted the famous sea-dwellers leaving the ocean and making the leap to land in glossy, 3D animation. Thankfully, it was merely an extended aside. But it proved that the animators were contemplating other animation styles. It was only a matter of time that a SpongeBob movie appear like most of the animated properties we see today, for better or for worse. Scientific progress can’t be stopped (and goes “boink”).

Thankfully, the animation style of The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run — the third time the iconic yellow sponge has made the leap to the big (small) screen — isn’t the issue. It’s dazzling in its detail and entrancing with its many colors. The problem once again lies in the tough reality that the show/movies have steered far away from what made the program endearing for so many years. Gone are the days of the show’s mostly linear narratives with spurts of zaniness and frequent use of clever one-liners. Present is the inclusion of absurdism, hamfisted pop culture references, and dizzying trippiness that seek to replicate contemporary children’s shows. The little ones probably won’t mind. For the older fans such as myself (who I assure you are still there en masse), the occasional chuckle is often followed with an apathetic shrug.

The social order of Bikini Bottom hasn’t changed much, however, at least initially. SpongeBob (voiced by Tom Kenny) is still hanging out with his indispensable pal Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke). Squidward (Roger Bumpass) is still irritated at both of them. Krusty Krab proprietor Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) is still hungry for moolah. And the scheming Planton (Mr. Lawrence) is still plotting to steal the secret formula of the beloved Krabby Patty.

With the help of his computer wife Karen (Jill Talley), Plankton comes to realize the constant hang-up in his exhaustive quest all these years has not been Krabs, but SpongeBob. This realization leads Plankton to steal SpongeBob’s pet snail Gary and give it to the vain and powerful Poseidon (Matt Berry), who has eradicated the snail population in order to use their slime-trail as part of his skin-care routine. SpongeBob is beside himself. Trying to find the courage inside of himself, he enlists help from the faithful Patrick and the two trek out to the Lost City of Atlantic City to retrieve Gary. A tumbleweed named Sage, featuring the disembodied head of Keanu Reeves, guides them because of course it does.

Ignoring the fact that the overarching conflict is essentially a retread of the show’s TV special “Have You Seen This Snail?” and the quest is akin to that of the first movie, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run manages to keep things lively and upbeat for 83 inconsequential minutes. The reliable attribute of these films has always been their soundtrack, which once again slaps thanks to inclusions of Willie Nelson, Weezer, Ricky Martin, and select originals (including the crowning jewel, “The Secret to the Formula”). I will say, the fact they couldn’t comprise a parody of the Sweet’s popular jam “Fox on the Run” and incorporate the title in an anthemic way is a terrible oversight.

But too often, things get weird, even by SpongeBob‘s current standards. There is a sequence in a saloon featuring live-action flesh-eating zombies and a Snoop Dogg performance that’s absolutely egregious. The extended scene of SpongeBob and Patrick riding sugar and gambling highs in Atlantic City is insurmountably energetic, yet too often recalls the superior “Goofy Goober” sequence in the original film. And worst of all, the climax is soiled by a shoehorned advertisement for the Kamp Koral prequel series that premiered on Paramount+ (formerly CBS All Access) the same day as the film’s American release. Kids might not realize the revisionist history taking place during these moments (such as how SpongeBob met Sandy), but loyal fans will be reminded this is not the SpongeBob with which they grew up.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run will ultimately satisfy youngsters and likely entertain parents just enough that they won’t spend too much time on their devices while watching it. With his passing in 2018, series creator Stephen Hillenburg’s fingerprints are mostly smudged on this product, remaining merely in the form of the infrequent quip from SpongeBob or Patrick, or the familiar mayhem that ensues; such as SpongeBob’s obsessive grill prep-work. There’s enough here to sustain 83 minutes, but desperately little to instill lasting memories.

Consider how in the wake of the Texas snowstorm, the popular clip of SpongeBob and Patrick mocking Texas resurfaced all over social media. I suspect you won’t find that lasting impression here decades down the road. That phase of SpongeBob is long gone.

NOTE: The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run is currently streaming on Paramount+ (formerly CBS All Access) with a subscription and available to rent via multiple platforms.

Grade: C

[embedyt] [/embedyt]