For some reason I can’t fully comprehend, I really, really wanted The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water to be good. And not in the regular way I want every movie that I see to be good, but in a particularly strong way. It’s almost as if I had some personal investment in the creative success of this movie. I have a few theories as to why that might’ve been the case, but before I go into them, I have to lead this review by letting you know that the movie was not what I was hoping for. It is by no means a disaster, but it’s also nowhere near the quality of the best episodes of the television show it’s based on.
That might actually be the perfect point to start. Because not only did I feel like this movie had to be good in order to justify its existence, but also in order to justify the fact that I like Spongebob Squarepants as a character, a television show, and a franchise. It’s weird to call Spongebob an underdog, since it remains one of the most popular cartoons in the world despite being fifteen years old. It makes billions of dollars for Nickelodeon every year, and if the opening weekend numbers for The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water are any indication, it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Still, I feel like there’s a certain stigma against Spongebob, especially coming from cinephiles. I think part of it is that Spongebob is a relatively young show as far as nostalgia is concerned. The people that grew up with Spongebob are younger millennials, who are probably twenty or younger. Most film critics are older than that. The second thing is the show’s unapologetically campy sense of humor. I might be wrong, but I feel like adults who don’t like Spongebob regard the main character as cheesy, and the show’s jokes as corny, and miss the “camp” of it all. I won’t be the kind of idiot that quotes Susan Sontag the minute he starts talking about camp, so I’ll just say that I think Spongebob does a pretty good job of fitting her description.
In any case, let us put the value of Spongebob Squarepants, the television show, aside for a second, and focus on what goes wrong in The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. One can simply start by analyzing the title, which I’m pretty sure was changed for marketing purposes. You see, the promotional campaign for Sponge Out of Water has strongly advertised the fact that, in this movie, Spongebob and the gang step out of the ocean and into the real world. I assume this has to do with the fact that similar movies about cartoon characters stepping into the real world (see The Smurfs) have been very successful. The truth is that the “Sponge Out of Water” part makes up less than a third of this movie. It’s basically a final act twist not too different from what happens near the end of The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, only this time, it has been thoroughly spoiled by the marketing.
Maybe if they hadn’t advertised the Spongebob stepping into the real world nobody would’ve gone to see this movie. I, for one, was looking forward to seeing how the Spongebob writers would handle mixing our world to the sense of humor of the Spongebob universe, but what I got was something far less unique. The movie turns out to be an extended Spongebob adventure focusing on the well-known rivalry between Spongebob and Plankton, the evil creature that wants to steal the “secret formula” necessary to cook the delicious krabby patties Spongebob makes a living off of cooking, and how it is put to test when a mysterious pirate (played by Antonio Banderas) enters the picture.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this premise, that’s for sure. Sponge Out of Water is the type of movie that fires a thousand jokes per minute at you, and like most movies of that ilk, some of the jokes are funnier than others. The laugh ratio of this movie is not great, but it’s also not too shabby. The problem with it is a little bit more fundamental. You see, when cartoons turn to the big screen, they tend to come up with a “big adventure” that will justify the over-sizing of what would usually be a 20-minute episode. Some shows translate to this template better than others. Spongebob did it pretty well for its first movie back in 2004. This time, however, it becomes apparent that “big adventures” are not Spongebob‘s forte.
I think of the best episodes of Spongebob and they have a similar thing in common: they are relatively low-stakes and often very small in scale. My two favorite episodes of all-time are the one where Spongebob and Squidward have to deliver a pizza and get lost on the way, and the one in which Spongebob has to work the night shift at the Krusty Krab despite being terrified by Squidward’s ghost stories. Spongebob’s brand of camp works better in mundane situations where the spectacle comes from the character’s quirk and not from any action sequence. After all, one of the most memorable set pieces in Spongebob‘s history is a scene of him cooking. Sponge Out of Water is not a terrible movie, but is bigger, louder, and shoutier than it needed to be.
Grade: 6 out of 10