“Spongebob Squarepants” is a pleasantly silly animated television show for children that has earned the gratitude of parents for not being sugary or dull. It also has a bit of a cult following among college students and other fans around the world. And Nickelodeon says that one-third of its audience is adults. It is a merchandising powerhouse. Spongebob, only five years since creation, is ahead of Spiderman on the Forbes list of top ten-earning fictional characters.
Having conquered television, computer games, and especially stuff to buy (you can stock every room in your house with Spongebob products — bedsheets, moonbounces, Halloween costumes, boxer shorts, backpacks, and kid-friendly snacks like string cheese, ice cream, and macaroni and cheese), Spongebob and the rest of the gang are taking on the big screen with their first feature-length theatrical release.
Television is free and the episodes last just eleven minutes. So, the challenge is creating a story that preserves the essentially silly nature of the stories while having enough narrative heft to sustain a paying audience’s attention for an hour and a half.
They get pretty close. They glitz up the highly distinctive but near-anonymous voice talent of the television series by adding some new characters, voiced by movie and television stars: Alec Baldwin as a motorcyle-riding hit-man, Jeffrey Tambor as short-tempered King Neptune, and Scarlett Johansson as his sweet daughter, Mindy, plus a guest live-action appearance by “Baywatch” icon David Hasselhoff. And they arrange their string of silly episodes around the most traditional of premises — Spongebob and his best friend, Patrick the starfish, go on an epic journey to retrieve King Neptune’s crown, stolen by perennial evil-doer Plankton to frame Spongebob’s boss, Mr. Krab.
It has wedgie jokes for the kids, snarky humor (enter Mr. Hasselhoff) and music by the Flaming Lips, Wilco, The Shins, and Avril Lavigne for college students, and some gentle lessons about compassion, loyalty, being yourself, and believing in yourself for parents. What they don’t do is find a way to benefit from the big screen. Spongebob is as trippily goofy as ever, but it’s still just a television show on a big screen, until it reappears on DVD for its natural setting, a tv set.
Parents should know that the movie is rated PG for some crude humor and cartoon-style mayhem and violence. Patrick keeps saying that Mindy the mermaid is “hot.” Advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has targeted this movie for its commercial tie-ins with junk food. Bikini Bottom seems to have an economy that is entirely fast-food-driven, which may pose a problem for families trying to teach children to eat sensibly.
Families who see this movie should talk about why being named manager is so important to Spongebob and why getting the recipe is so important to Plankton. Why did Mindy’s pretend spell make Spongebob and Patrick feel more confident? They might also want to talk about the level of merchandising promoted by Spongebob and how we decide what it is we really need and enjoy.
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy seeing Spongebob’s television episode adventures as well as Teacher’s Pet and other undersea dramas for families like The Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo.