Take the anything-goes, kitchen-sink approach of Adult Swim, throw in the psychedelic surrealism of the last third of 2001, envision hallucinatory characters and situations to rival the Kroft brothers’ shows or Yo Gabba Gabba, make it totally PG somehow and give it a budget to do anything and an experimental use of 3D to rival anything James Cameron’s done with the form…and yes, believe it or not, you get The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water. This is not just a good SpongeBob movie – it is a genuinely great use of cinema as a visual medium, funny as hell and utterly random in its dream-logic, which I suppose is to be expected in a reality where magic dolphins who aren’t permitted bathroom breaks are in charge of the universe.
The majority of audience members at my 10 p.m. Thursday-night screening were pretty obviously high, and if that’s what you’re into, I cannot imagine a better movie for it.
It begins as a story within a story, as dastardly pirate Burger Beard (Antonio Banderas) steals a magic book from a Pirates of the Caribbean-type location that comes complete with boxing skeleton – a curiously strong and incompetent one at that, whose uppercut sends Burger Beard flying right back onto his absurdly tiny ship with the purloined tome in hand. As talking seagulls prepare to annoy him with their singing, Burger Beard begins reading from the book…which contains a tale of SpongeBob and friends in their underwater hometown of Bikini Bottom. Despite this part being somewhat traditionally animated, the 3D is actually utilized incredibly well on the familiar settings – that it was practiced first on a motion simulator ride for Las Vegas and Six Flags probably explains the quality.
Following a gloriously nutso food fight, villainous Plankton (Douglas “Mr. Lawrence” Osowski) once again attempts to steal the Krabby Patty formula from Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown), and if you don’t know what any of that means, don’t worry – Burger Beard offers a quick rundown, complete with examples and in a manner that won’t bore regular viewers, of who the main characters are and what they do.
But when SpongeBob attempts to stop Plankton from getting the much-coveted fast food recipe, it vanishes. Everyone assumes Plankton has stolen it, but the always good-hearted SpongeBob stands up for his technically innocent arch-foe because he knows it’s the right thing to do. As the town descends into a Mad Max apocalypse within the course of a few seconds once everyone hears their beloved fried sandwich is out of stock, SpongeBob and Plankton flee together to try to figure out what happened, and get that formula back. The quest involves building a time machine, going into the future and outer space, and engaging us with psychedelic, depth-perception altering star gates every time. At one point, Garfunkel and Oates show up as conjoined talking popsicle twins, and Plankton vomits rainbows.
Due to the marketing materials relying heavily on the film’s climactic sequence in which the main characters enter the live-action world as superheroes, you know that some way, somehow, Burger Beard’s reality will bend back on itself and he will come face-to-face with the characters he has only been reading about. (Even in putting together this review, it was a challenge to find images from the movie’s first two-thirds.) It’s handled cleverly, in a way that makes more sense than most of the rest of the story. I’ll put it this way – this is the kind of thing I would tell my father never to see, because he always tries to work a film’s story logic backwards, even in as nutty a setting as Bikini Bottom via all of time and space. Unlike Inherent Vice, where there is a story but it feels needlessly convoluted and beside the point, it’s more like the dream logic of a story that a kid far too young to be using drugs might tell after accidentally eating the wrong kind of mushrooms.
One of the pitfalls of making a movie from a still-running TV show is that it risks being excessively tied down to continuity and/or feeling like nothing more than a slightly longer episode. The X-Files flicks had that problem, and on the low end of the spectrum you get something like My Little Pony: Equestria Girls that is actively worse and more nakedly cynical than the show it’s based on. Sponge out of Water not only goes the extra mile; it goes the extra light year. It doesn’t have the thematic depths of The Lego Movie, but it’s every bit the equal when it comes to using a consumer-friendly brand to experiment like crazy. Cartoons need to do that more often – if we can’t ever expect animated films for adults from major studios, it’d be nice to know we can occasionally get a little anarchy (formal AND narrative) in between the predictable fairy tales.
Is there a message? Not especially. For a movie about an annoying hero so good-hearted he forgives everyone and uses bubbles and ice cream as his principal weapons, it’s remarkably unpreachy, and doesn’t shy away from showing kids that even good friends can be cruel sometimes without ever saying sorry. But if that’s what you’re paying attention to most, amid the singing parrot skeletons, exploding tartar sauce bombs, seagull-sized porta-potties and roaring snails, you might need to loosen up. I did. The only off-note for me is that the one or two original songs aren’t especially memorable – creatively staged, yes, but I couldn’t hum their tunes even if my Krabby Patties were on the line.
There’s a particularly out-there sequence in which Plankton literally walks inside SpongeBob’s brain – I feel like the movie took a brisk stroll into mine, and is messing around in there. That’s a good feeling to get from a film.