Back in 2011, lots of people were surprised by Rango, a surreal pastiche of Chinatown through the lens of the Western genre which put Paramount’s animation division on the map. Just in case you haven’t seen it and we haven’t stressed this enough in the last four years, then you really ought to check it out.
For those of us waiting for something as good or better from the studio, its latest effort, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water may leave you wanting. Then again, if you’re a fan of the series on which it’s based, it’s perfectly in keeping with the surrealism we’ve come to expect.
Counter to what the marketing would have you believe, it’s not a CG/live action hybrid, or at least not until the last 20 minutes of the film. The rest is rendered in the familiar style of both the series and the previous movie, 2004’s The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, and it follows the fallout of a cataclysmic theft in the town of Bikini Bottom.
During one of Plankton’s elaborate attempts to steal the Krusty Krab’s famous Krabby Patty, the secret formula vanishes completely. Meanwhile, framing the animated underwater exploits, a live-action pirate called Captain Burger-Beard (Antonio Banderas) is able to manipulate events through a magical book, stealing the recipe for himself.
Bikini Bottom soon descends into leather-clad post-apocalyptic disarray, with the red-handed SpongeBob and Plankton framed as partners in crime and all of the former’s friends turning against him. Working as a team, the two of them go on a time-travelling, reality-bending quest to restore the blessed burger to its rightful place.
If any of that made sense to you, then you’ll probably manage this one just fine. You get the gist of what to expect from the first ten minutes, when Antonio Banderas discovers a book of spoilers for the movie we’re about to watch, and the animated characters have a heavy artillery food fight under the sea, complete with condiment guns and a 10 litre jar of mayo.
The series has been known to get pretty surreal over the span of ten minutes, but over an 80 minute runtime, this film just escalates further and further. The weirdest that the 2004 movie got was David Hasselhoff’s cameo as himself in a (much shorter) live-action segment, playing Hoff ex machina around the time that all seemed lost.
By getting much stranger, much earlier, Sponge Out Of Water ensures that nobody will ever call it boring. Screenwriters Glenn Berger and Jonathan Aibel are best known for their work on DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda series and (at the opposite end of the scale) the Alvin & The Chipmunks ‘squeak-quels’, but they really cut loose with the weirdness here.
The voice cast are all present and correct, and up on screen, Banderas has a whale of a time as Burger-Beard. He opens the film fist-fighting a skeleton and ends it by swashbuckling with a spatula. Nobody will be surprised by how over-the-top he goes here, because he could even stand to go twice as big and the film wouldn’t buckle under the strain.
In fact, the film’s maddest running gag involves a magic dolphin character called Bubbles, (voiced by the one and only Matt Berry) a celestial custodian whose lack of job satisfaction is reminiscent of some of Douglas Adams’ creations. It’s around the point at which he’s introduced that the film truly waves “so long and thanks for all the fish” to any kind of grounding.
The trailers have the film as a mostly CG/live-action adventure in which the regular characters become superheroes. It’s quite cynical to misrepresent it that way, but it’s not like this passage is any better in context. The climactic setpiece has already been over-exposed in most of the trailers and it marks the point where the film seems to lose faith in the attention span of a Marvel-mad audience.
With the bombastic exception of Avengers Assemble, there aren’t many Marvel movies in which the third act is the best part, and even as a SpongeBob spin on some of the super-powered final battles, aping those action scenes leads to much the same result here.
There’s no concession to newcomers, but arguably, there needn’t be. The fans who were in the target audience when the series first started back in 1999 are now either teens or adults, and there’s enough of the usual sense of humour here to sustain everybody’s interest, even if some of us would’ve liked to see more of Patrick and Squidward.
But if you’ve never been into the series and you’re dragged along to see it, this might be a bit of a struggle- they even acknowledge that listening to SpongeBob guffaw can be deployed as a form of torture when Mr. Krabs first catches Plankton out.
Putting aside the irritating ad campaign, Sponge Out Of Water has its cake and eats it too, subverting expectations while also partly conforming to the noisy CG antics of modern tentpole cinema, animated or otherwise.
Barring those aforementioned quibbles, it’s a funny and diverting addition to the SpongeBob SquarePants canon that ought to keep kids and older fans happy over the Easter holidays and, as with most things he stars in, is probably worth seeing for Matt Berry alone.
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water is out in UK cinemas on 27th March
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