'The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run': Film Review

SpongeBob Movie: Sponge On The Run-Publicity still - H 2020
Paramount Animation
Fast, funny, demented.
3/4/2021

Keanu Reeves, Awkwafina, Tiffany Haddish and Snoop Dogg are among those joining the long-time voice cast in this latest adventure of the Bikini Bottom crew, on the trail of an abducted sea snail.

There's a touching dedication on the end credits of The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run to Stephen Hillenburg, the marine biologist-turned-animator who created the series that grew into a $13 billion franchise and died in 2018. It's accompanied by what looks to be a rudimentary early image of the eponymous hero, an eternally upbeat sea sponge whose core values of friendship, kindness and community have made the coral atoll population of Bikini Bottom an animation staple for more than two decades. Those fundamental traits inform this infectious third feature spinoff, its heart matched by its loopy anarchic spirit.

Written and directed by Tim Hill, a long-time key collaborator on the Nickelodeon series, this is the first all-CGI iteration of the property. The technological overhaul from 2D doesn't diminish the vibrant personalities of the character animation, and it's added an even trippier dimension to the surreal backgrounds. More immersive, if you will, even if its episodic action gets no prizes for storytelling discipline.

The Twitter fans who started demanding a sequel the minute Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar premiered this month could do worse than look to this kids' cartoon from Paramount+ as an unlikely companion piece. (It opened last year in Canada but is bypassing U.S. theatrical for a streaming/premium VOD release.) The two films are soulmates in their commitment to anything-goes comic lunacy and their unstinting use of an eye-searing paint-box of color, not to mention their hymn to friendship as both a life-giving and life-saving force.

The enduring charm of SpongeBob SquarePants has always been the combination of sweet juvenile innocence with mildly subversive adult humor ("Eww, snail trail! Yucky," exclaims the poriferous yellow protagonist in a cheeky early moment), making it a perennial stoner favorite. That balance remains in place here, incorporating pop-culture miscellany that ranges from Willie Nelson to Ricky Martin tunes, and live-action interlopers including Snoop Dogg, Danny Trejo and Keanu Reeves as Sage, a "Dream Weaver" who dispenses mystical quest guidance from inside a tumbleweed.

Sponge on the Run comes four years after the elaborate $20 million Broadway musical based on the cartoon, which was a commercial disappointment but a delirious critical darling. The show's psychedelic Day-Glo marine world appears to have been influential not only in the look of the new movie but also in the extent to which songs have become part of its funscape.

It's not quite a musical but there are full-blown numbers: A flamboyantly costumed Snoop Dogg appears as a Western ghost town saloon gambler leading an ensemble of dancing cowboy pirate zombies; scheming villain Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) confesses that he does care, after all, in "The Secret Formula is You," written by Hill with Cyndi Lauper and Rob Hyman; and Weezer throws a party with the peppy "It's Always Summer in Bikini Bottom." Even the end credits tunes are a blast, with the hip-hop "Krabby Step" by Tyga, Swae Lee and Lil Mosey, as well as songs by The Flaming Lips and Colombian reggaeton artist J Balvin, the latter sampling the original SpongeBob theme.

All the regular underwater denizens are present and accounted for, with SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) serving as their happy mascot. But it's a new character who sets the road-trip plot in motion. King Poseidon (British comedian Matt Berry, from The IT Crowd and What We Do in the Shadows), the ruler of the seven seas, prides himself on his complexion. "Look at me, 3,000 years old and check out my skin, it's like a baby's butt," he says, talking up the rejuvenating properties of sea snail secretions. "A monarch is only as powerful as his skincare regimen." When his supply of gastropod mollusks dries up, he has his Chancellor (Reggie Watts) post a royal decree offering a reward for fresh snails.

Back in Bikini Bottom, Plankton's latest scheme to rule the atoll has floundered, so he kidnaps SpongeBob's adored pet snail Gary (who meows like a kitten) to claim the cash. SpongeBob and his starfish pal Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) set out to rescue the critter, traveling in a boat piloted by Otto (Awkwafina), a malfunctioning robot built by squirrel scientist Sandy Cheeks (Carolyn Lawrence).

This takes SpongeBob and Patrick to the surface in a dream interlude requiring them to free the souls of the undead, held captive by the murderous El Diablo the Wicked (Trejo). But the real danger is Poseidon, who savors the spectacle of public beheadings in his glitzy palace in the Lost City of Atlantic City. This is an amusement park and casino citadel that cranks up the neon rainbow hues several notches. Poseidon's "Execution Extravaganza" is part trial-part gameshow, with Tiffany Haddish voicing the emcee and horn player Kelpy G blowing "My Heart Will Go On" for the crowd.

The frenetic plot makes about as much sense as it needs to within this world of slapstick insanity, random detours, crazy chases, gambling fever and a talent quest for "the coveted Campy Award." You'll either give in to it, or you won't.

What's important is that a news bulletin brings the imperiled plight of SpongeBob and Patrick to the attention of their Bikini Bottom chums, who arrive to deliver a heartfelt defense. This yields what's almost an origin story within the story as Sandy, Squidward (Rodger Bumpass), Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) and even Plankton testify to the influence of SpongeBob's innate goodness on their lives. The most dewy-eyed of their recollections travel back to childhood summers at Camp Coral, interludes that double as a tender love letter to Hillenburg and will be the basis of a new prequel series from Nickelodeon, debuting on Paramount+ this year.

Ultimately, there are no villains even in an autocracy run by a vainglorious fool with fake hair, who's shocked and humbled to discover he has neither friends nor loyalty. His redemption might be just the fantasy antidote we need to the last four years, whether or not that was the intention.

Production companies: Paramount Animation, Nickelodeon Movies, MRC, United Plankton Pictures
Distribution: Paramount+ (streaming and VOD)
Cast: Tom Kenny, Awkwafina, Matt Berry, Clancy Brown, Rodger Bumpass, Snoop Dogg, Bill Fagerbakke, Tiffany Haddish, Carolyn Lawrence, Mr. Lawrence, Keanu Reeves, Danny Trejo, Reggie Watts
Director-screenwriter: Tim Hill; story by Hill, Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, based on the series created by Stephen Hillenburg
Producer: Ryan Harris
Executive producer: Stephen Hillenburg
Director of photography: Peter Lyons Collister
Production designer: Chris L. Spellman
Costume designer: Shawna L. Trpcic
Music: Hans Zimmer, Steve Mazzaro
Editor: Michael W Andrews
Head of story: Aaron Springer
Co-head of story: Mark O’Hare
Animation production designers: Rachel Tiep-Daniels, Sue Mondt
Head of animation cinematography: John Clark
Head of character animation: Andrew Overstoom
Animation supervisor: Jacques Daigle
Visual effects supervisors: Erik Mattson, Vanitha Rangaraju
Casting: Joseph Middleton, Monika Mikkelson
Rated PG, 91 minutes