What's most admirable about SpongeBob SquarePants – the Nickelodeon TV show, the movies, the character himself – is how perfectly un-Pixar it is. There's a long, grim history of "family entertainment" (read: children's movies) buying pedigree by simultaneously playing to both children and adults. From that fateful shot that left Bambi orphaned, to the playthings in Toy Story 3 resigning themselves to their own demise with an air of quiet dignity as they're trundled towards a blazing incinerator, there's a sense that kids' movies have to be ballasted by some element of heaviness to be taken seriously. There's an expectation that a film, in tone if not in content alone, has to offer "something for everyone."
Not so with SpongeBob. Despite a few nods here and there – such as David Hasselhoff showing up in full Baywatch regalia in 2004's The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie – SpongeBob is unequivocally for kids (or, yes, stoned adults). Plenty has been made about the vitalizing naivety and unhipness of the SpongeBob franchise, which barely needs repeating some 15-plus years in. Suffice it to say that, par for the course, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water mostly nails what has always made the character, and his brightly coloured underwater world, so endearing: the abundant innocence, the welcome lack of cynicism and the out-and-out stupidity.
Using a framing device involving a pirate-restaurateur named Burger-Beard (Antonio Banderas) telling a story to a group of seagulls, Sponge Out of Water plunges us back to Bikini Bottom, where our absorbent, yellow and porous hero SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) is giddily slaving away as a fry cook employed by the crustacean capitalist caricature Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown). Yet again, conniving microscopic baddie Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) is attempting to swipe the supersecret recipe for the Krabby Patty – an underwater hamburger that Bikini Bottom's denizens crave as if it were a narcotic. When the recipe suddenly vanishes, SpongeBob is blamed for colluding with Plankton, and the two head for high ground as Krabby Patty-less Bikini Bottom descends (pretty much instantly) into a crumbling, hellish, Mad Max-modelled postapocalyptic waste.
Sponge Out of Water's titular showpiece comes in its final act, when SpongeBob, Plankton, Mr. Krabs, grumpy co-worker Squidward (Rodger Bumpass), dopey starfish Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) and requisite gal pal Sandy the squirrel (Carolyn Lawrence) are magically blasted into "our world" – that is, the domain of living, breathing, non-animated humans – in order to recover the Krabby Patty recipe from Burger-Beard. There's plenty of precedent for this commingling of human and cartoon worlds, from Bedknobs and Broomsticks through to Who Framed Roger Rabbit and that Simpsons Halloween special when Homer gets dumped into three whole dimensions and marvels at its wonders ("Oooo … erotic cakes!"). Veteran series director Paul Tibbitt lenses the beaches of bloated, sweat-dappled human physiques with a level of cartoonish grotesquerie consistent with the series' animation, and with the unforgivingly gross beach-body tapestry of Harmony Korine's recent Spring Breakers.
Ultimately, the journey to the realm of landlubbers sinks Sponge Out of Water. Despite a hilarious turn by Banderas, who between this and The Expendables 3 has proven himself a major late-career comic talent, the CGI sojourn feels too much like a lame attempt to reinvigorate a flagging kiddie franchise. Save for some halfway inventive touches, such as a meta-turn that evokes Chuck Jones's surrealist Merrie Melodies short Duck Amuck, Sponge Out of Water coasts on its 3-D CGI shtick, sacrificing the giddy whimsy that recommends the SpongeBob series for more boringly Hollywood whiz-bang action. It may still be blissfully un-Pixar in its levity and absurdity. But it offers something just as unbecoming of a movie carrying the SpongeBob title: a burly, boneheaded twist on a modern Marvel Comics blockbuster.