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"SpongeBob" Wants Nothing More Than To Entertain

Some fads I get, and some I don't. SpongeBob SquarePants falls into both realms. The show is bright, chipper, and relentlessly goofy, which makes it 6 to 11-year-old crack cocaine. What I fail to entirely comprehend is the show's popularity amongst those who are older, especially those of us old enough to recognize SpongeBob's obvious Nicktoon forebears. SpongeBob's television proceedings have a habit of utilizing random associations and overdetailed gross-out close-ups pioneered by Ren and Stimpy, and the structure of the show is practically a dumbed-down version of Rocko's Modern Life. The daily schedule defined by a job, the dumb best friend, the cranky and always-embarrassed neighbor - all hallmarks from Joe Murray's Rocko; SpongeBob even engages in slice-of-life tactics common to the Murray's show. Actually, SpongeBob SquarePants's creator Stephen Hillenburg is a alumnus of that very show, so the correlation is especially apparent to this Rocko fan. So why would folks my age or older buy into it? If The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie taught me anything, it's that there really is no sophisticated reason for SpongeBob's older popularity. It just makes older folks feel young.

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Perhaps this is due to the inherent difference between the plot of the movie and the kinds of plots seen on the television show. The television show is simply antics, nothing more and nothing less. The characters are established as what they are, and are made of pure Teflon, nothing ever sticking to them. Because of that, the show comes across as immature, because SpongeBob and Patrick are very much members of that label, and the show fails to point that out. In the movie, however, the maturity of SpongeBob is the sticking point of the whole crisis for our main character. He loses his prized opportunity for promotion due to his standard maturity level, and comes to deal with that for the whole film. Now, the film doesn't ask SpongeBob to really grow up (after all, that would make him less commercially viable), and it asks us to accept his doofiness wholeheartedly, but by just having the world around SpongeBob really face the issue, even that wholly expected conclusion is more satisfactory than if SpongeBob were an entity unto himself within his own universe. Additionally, having the antagonist role shift from the TV-standard Squidward to Plankton is a smart move. Plankton is actually a villain, unlike Squidward, and thusly he is more enjoyable to watch in his antagonism. Also, the only way to make Squidward the antagonist is to have him annoyed at SpongeBob, which means the audience must endure actual annoyance on the hero's part, an element greatly responsible for the show's inherent immaturity. The movie manages to create conflict without forcing SpongeBob to even get close to being a raw nerve.

But while the conflict is more intriguing in the film than it is on television, I found a more interesting conflict outside of the bounds of the plot itself. For those who appreciate a good mediation on storytelling techniques, it is worth it to view The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie as a struggle between the desire to tell some sort of meaningful story and the desire to sincerely goof around with the humor and the characters. All throughout the film, the struggle is present: are we going to follow SpongeBob's dippy personality to its appropriately loony conclusion, or are we going to get back to that whole "message" crap that seems to be dogging the movie's footsteps? As the lunatic events converge into the climax, this audience member was worried that false sincerity would rule the day. Blessedly, it was the goofy quality that won the battle, and as everything came down to the final moments, things got more and more ludicrous until it became clear that the ludicrousness was entirely the point. The movie presents a problem that it never finds a really honest way to answer, but wackiness is preferable to dishonest answers. I'd rather laugh than roll my eyes, even if the laughter's a little shallow.

It helps that the voice cast is solid. Since it's a direct-from-television translation, the real stars of the film are not the few celebrities they have in supporting roles, but Tom Kenny, Bill Fagerbakke, and Mr. Lawrence. Fagerbakke is one of those voice actors who has been around for a while but hasn't quite gotten enough roles to really shine in, and the dimwitted Patrick is a better example of his talents than pretty much anything else he's done. Not an award-winner, but Fagerbakke's deep goofball voice is perfectly suited for it. Mr. Lawrence is really familiar to me only as Filburt from the aforementioned Rocko's Modern Life, which makes his maniacal Plankton a terrific surprise in tonal and energy difference. And Tom Kenny, master lunatic that he is, has undeniable star charisma in his rendition of SpongeBob; as indifferent as I am towards the television show, I cannot begrudge Kenny his achievement and his fame due to this character. The celebrities (Jeffrey Tambor as King Neptune, Scarlett Johannsen as Princess Mindy, and Alec Baldwin as the hitfish Dennis) are all fairly strong - especially Baldwin, a natural-born voice actor - but the career voice-over folks behind the major characters really overshadow them big-time. To this voice-actor geek, that's a plus.

I don't think I'm going to somehow enjoy the television show more after seeing this film; after all, I really became more able to articulate what I don't like about the show after seeing the more successful feature. Despite that, though, I don't dislike SpongeBob. He's an amusing and distinctive fellow, and even his show can make me laugh sometimes, which is more than I can say for most shows on television today. For the film, I had fun, which was a pleasant boost from my mid-range expectations walking into the showing. Your kids will insist on seeing it, I'm sure. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, and let the lunacy wash over you. Easiest way to get through it.

Three (***) stars out of four (****)

A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on November 23, 2004

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