The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water is really funny; enough for it to overcome what flaws it has.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Before we properly get to reviewing, I need to put out a request to all animation studios. Ahem… STOP REGIONALLY RE-CASTING CERTAIN ROLES! See, for some reason, certain animated films have started developing a habit of dubbing over minor roles with British ‘celebrities’ instead of their original voice actors. Pixar’s Cars re-cast the role of Lightning McQueen’s arsehole manager from Jeremy Piven, because Entourage – have I ever mentioned that I am not a fan of Cars – to Jeremy Clarkson, because… I’m drawing a blank. Big Hero 6 had YouTubers Dan and Phil – they were the scientists reporting the status of the Krey-Tech experiment in case you wondered why there were random distracting British accents in that scene and, no, I don’t know who they are either.
And now, The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water recasts seemingly its entire seagull cast with British ‘celebrities’, most recognisable of which being Alan Carr. And I know that that’s the case because the credits list the original VAs for each of them and Carr’s name is not inexplicably listed between people like Rob Paulson, April Stewart, and Billy West – seemingly none of which are actually in this version of the film, and I’d recognise their various voices damn near anywhere. I’m not going to mark the film down for these problems, there’s no point since I can just import the correct version from America when it hits Blu-Ray, but I do want the animation industry to know this: I AM ONTO YOU. Stop devaluing the hard work of the minor players by telling them that their work can be replaced when the film goes to other English-speaking countries by stunt-cast mediocre actors who often flub their lines and sound like they did their work on the other end of a poor quality phone line. So stop it. That is all.
Anyways… The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water. There’s something I need to clear up before I tell you whether it is any good or not, because the marketing has misrepresented this one so badly. See, despite how the film’s marketing has told it, Sponge Out Of Water spends very, very little time actually out of the ocean. In fact, I would estimate that the gang spend, at the very most, 20 minutes above the surface, with 10 of those being dedicated to the superhero stuff that has been slapped all over the marketing, and this is all at the end of the film. You know that section in The Spongebob Squarepants Movie where Spongebob and Patrick are carted off to the surface before promptly being rescued by David Hasselhoff? The surface elements here are about twice that length, maybe thrice, tops.
Consequently, yes, the plot takes forever to really get going, especially since the film itself makes it really, really obvious as to who (Antonio Banderas, who only occasionally looks like he’s having a miserable time) has really stolen the Krabby Patty formula that Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) and Spongebob (Tom Kenny) have been fingered for and why it is happening. It’s not much of an issue, because that’s more time spent in Bikini Bottom and I’ll come back to that, but it does highlight how little of the heart that powered the first Spongebob film is in this one. The first was a very funny film, but it was also a very sincere film powered by characters with genuine love and filmmakers who were similarly invested enough to let that heart take centre-stage when required. Sponge Out Of Water doesn’t really have that, undercutting what moments of pathos it starts towards with a joke at the expense of that pathos.
As a result, the film probably won’t have the same replay strength as the first one did. It’s aiming to be a joke machine, which isn’t inherently a bad thing – and the insistent status-quo nature of the Spongebob universe, in terms of events and character traits and character dynamics, does provide some of the film’s best gags – but it does mean that I am picking apart the points where the film doesn’t work a lot sooner than I normally would have. There’s also the film’s main dynamic, where Spongebob tries to break through to Plankton and teach him the value of teamwork, which does contain some very funny gags, like Plankton’s near-total inability to pronounce the word due to the concept being so alien to him, but treads too closely to the classic show episode “F.U.N.” to impact fully – there’s even a duet between Spongebob and Plankton over the pros and cons of teamwork that is nowhere near as good as “F is for friends that do stuff together, U is for” you know the rest.
This all being said… … …I laughed. I laughed a lot. Spongebob Squarepants has been all over the place since the first movie, veering from great (Season 4) to mostly terrible (Season 5 to about Season 7) and more recently settling on pretty entertaining (Season 9), but Sponge Out Of Water finds everyone on near-top form – most likely not co-incidentally, this is the first time since the first movie that the show’s creator, Stephen Hillenburg, has been involved in the creative process. Jokes come very thick and very fast, trading on physical comedy, character comedy, gross-out comedy, fourth-wall leans, and complete randomness in equal hilarious measure. I had plenty of big hearty belly laughs – which certainly seemed to make the kids in my screening less self-conscious about how loud they were allowed to laugh – with enough smaller chuckles, giggles and smirks between them to keep the occasional dry spell from being a problem.
But even when I wasn’t laughing, I was still entertained, primarily by the fact that I got to watch a traditionally-animated feature film on the big screen again. Look, what can I say? My formative years were shaped by Classic Era Disney VHS tapes, I will always have a soft spot for the medium regardless of how well it’s pulled off. As for Sponge Out Of Water, it looks like an episode of the TV show, just with the budget allotted to be able to trash the various sets a lot more than usual. I don’t mean this as an insult, by the way. Spongebob’s art style and animation quality are so distinctive and ingrained by this point that messing with that would likely cause more harm than good. You know how the first film looked? It’s like that. Pretty much exactly like that and, again, that is not a bad thing.
The film’s best looking moments are, as is probably expected for Spongebob, when it gets weird. Art shifts are an even more frequent occurrence than one might expect but they all benefit greatly from the extra cash available. A trip inside Spongebob’s mind is rendered in a semi-Flash day-glow sickening manner, there’s one semi-recurring character whose body is stop-motion and whose cape is CGI with the two never quite gelling which brilliantly amplifies the utterly weird effect of the character’s entire existence, there’s a recurrent suitably trippy art shift that I would not even dream of spoiling for you, and the bonkers final scene is done in clip-art style Flash. It all looks great, too, because they still adhere close enough to the traditional sequences to feel like they come from the same film.
Oh, yeah, and there’s the live-action sequences. Because they’re just the last 20 minutes, they suffer the most from joke decay, it really is just every single one of the same jokes that have been repeatedly thrown your way for the past 6 months one after another, barring a few great instances. That said, although they’re a step down from the prior 60 minutes, they’re still fun. Mike Mitchell, of the criminally underrated Sky High, handles these sequences and he pulls off the exact level of self-aware staginess required for these segments, whilst the CG looks great with fuzzy toy-style character designs, and the animation gets more than close enough to the half-pose-to-pose-half-squash-and-stretch style of the Paul Tibbitt, a series mainstay, directed animation segments.
So, although it’s nothing particularly brilliant and doesn’t reach the heights of its first cinematic excursion, I still really enjoyed The Spongebob Movie. It’s a much-needed course-correct for the series as a whole – you’ll find that Spongebob is much less irritating and that most everybody is less of a total jerk, here – and though it fails to follow through on its heart properly, it’s still funny enough and made with enough care and love to succeed. I don’t know if it will hold up as well on a second viewing, the true test of a comedy for me, but I went in with high expectations and come out rather satisfied. Of course, if you don’t like Spongebob then you should disregard everything I have said here because this is only really for fans. But, as a fan, I laughed. A lot. Plus the ending fulfilled a need I didn’t even know I had, so there’s that.
Just maybe import the Blu-Ray from America when that time comes, eh? I mean, I’m sure that April Stewart and Cree Summer are just thrilled to hear that Paramount Pictures believes that STACEY SOLOMON can do their jobs just as well.
Callum Petch will spoil, spoil all the fun. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!