It Came from Beneath the Sea
They just don't make cartoons like they used to. Yu-Gi-Oh? Pokemon? All Grown Up? Feh. Back in my day, we had the good stuff like Doug, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Rugrats. I even remember watching Ren & Stimpy, a Nickelodeon show now aired late at night on Spike TV. Kiddie shows today don't have a thing on those classics I viewed as an impressionable five-year-old. Still, there's one current program I admire for its colorful look, kid-friendly demeanor, and occasionally off-the-wall, surreal sense of humor: Nickelodeon's hugely popular SpongeBob SquarePants.
For anyone unfamiliar with the cartoon (and if you are, I'd like to ask how you enjoyed spending the last five years under a rock), it all revolves around an undersea-dwelling dude named SpongeBob, whose 11-minute adventures usually involve hanging out with his best friends, going jellyfishing, or working as a fry cook at the Krusty Krab restaurant. Fans of the show will be pleased to know that SpongeBob's first cinematic outing is exactly the same as the cartoon: weird, bright, amusing, a little inconsistent at times, and funny as all get-out.
As our story begins, SpongeBob (voice of Tom Kenny) is preparing for the moment when his money-grubbing boss Mr. Krabs (voice of Clancy Brown) declares him the manager of the Krusty Crab 2 (located right next to the first Krusty Krab establishment, of course). However, despite his experience and gazillion employee of the month awards, a heartbroken SpongeBob gets passed over for over for the job.
Meanwhile, Mr. Krabs's arch-rival Plankton (voice of Mr. Lawrence), manager of the failing Chum Bucket, puts into action his latest scheme to pilfer the secret formula of the irresistible Krabby Patties. Plankton's plan involves stealing the crown of King Neptune (voice of Jeffrey Tambor) and framing Mr. Krabs for the crime while becoming rich by selling Krabby Patties. While he's at it, Plankton will also try to take over the minds of Bikini Bottom's residents.
Fear not, dear reader, for SpongeBob is ready to prove himself to Mr. Krabs by venturing out to Shell City to retrieve the crown -- with a little help from his starfish buddy Patrick (voice of Bill Fagerbakke) and King Neptune's kinder, gentler daughter Mindy (voice of Scarlett Johansson).
If you read the above summary with a straight face and have the desire to question the sanity of the cartoon's creators, then don't bother with The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. On the other hand, if you sat back and laughed at the sheer silliness of the story, then dive right in. Although this film is primarily for fans only, if you're intrigued by the idea of an animated film featuring a talking sponge who's friends with a squirrel in a diving suit and works at a burger joint, then it's quite possible the flick's goofy charm will work on you.
I should also mention that SpongeBob doesn't spend all its time dealing with low-brow, simplistic kiddie humor. Yes, there's enough goofiness and slapstick humor here to keep the little ones entertained, but scattered throughout are examples of just how odd the cartoon can get, from a scene where SpongeBob and Patrick get drunk on ice cream at a place called Goofy Goober's to the climax, where SpongeBob goes into full-on '80s rock mode to try and save Bikini Bottom. This film offers enough of an adult edge to make sure not all of its jokes go over the kids' heads, and parents won't be bored to death with cutesy humor.
Granted, the plot is a little blah and often feels like an episode stretched out into a 90-minute movie. But just like the show, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is a hit-or-miss deal and has more of the former than the latter to its credit. The cartoon's regulars are all back, from Tom Kenny's unmistakable SpongeBob voice to Bill Fagerbakke as the blissfully dense Patrick, plus a few new additions. Jeffrey Tambor does okay work as King Neptune, who's insecure about his balding head now that his crown has been stolen, and Scarlett Johansson is satisfactory (though her vocal turn contains nothing that jumps out and says, "Look at this, folks!"). But it's Alec Baldwin who rules as a tough-as-nails, sunglasses-brandishing biker hitman named Dennis. That, and the cameo from David Hasselhoff as himself provides one of the funniest scenes I've seen all year.
November of 2004 has been quite a month for family films. The Incredibles continued Pixar's winning streak, and The Polar Express did an admirable job of spreading its share of holiday cheer. Although The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie isn't as complex or lofty as those box office competitors, it's simple, cheerful and goofy -- a film designed to entertain audiences while telling a little story about having fun, being yourself, and always depending on David Hasselhoff in times of need.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated "PG" for some mild crude humor.)
Review also posted at www.ajhakari.com.