SpongeBob (Tom Kenny), the lovable and highly merchandisable naïf from Bikini Bottom, has a problem: His pet sea snail, Gary, has been stolen by the vain King Poseidon (Matt Berry) for use in his daily skincare routine. Those who have absorbed too many episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants (or even just the first SpongeBob SquarePants Movie) may recall that the series already has a King Neptune. But never mind, there’s plenty of room at the bottom of the ocean for both the Greek and the Roman gods. It’s not as though this decades-spanning, multi-billion-dollar property has ever put a premium on logic: The silliness is an important part of its cross-generational appeal.
In fact, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge On The Run could use a little more of it. Considering that this is the third planned big-screen outing for this most porous of cartoon protagonists (it moved to Paramount Plus due to the pandemic), some formula fatigue is inevitable: One can only parody the hero’s journey so many times. Again, there are trippy sequences, a live-action segment, pop songs, and tongue-in-cheek celebrity cameos. The misadventures of SpongeBob and his pals and frenemies have be enough to sustain more than 200 continually rerun episodes of TV, but filling out a feature, even one that’s barely 80 minutes without credits, takes a lot of squeezing.
For those unfamiliar with SpongeBob, there is, of course, a song. He lives in a pineapple under the sea with Gary the snail. His best friend, Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), is a dimwitted sea star. He works as a fry cook at the Krusty Krab for the miserly Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown), whose nemesis, the diminutive Plankton (Mr. Lawrence), is obsessed with stealing the secret Krabby Patty formula. The dyspeptic Squidward Q. Tentacles (Roger Bumpass), who is in fact an octopus, is SpongeBob’s neighbor and co-worker. Sandy (Carolyn Lawrence), a squirrel scientist who walks around in a space suit and lives in an air-filled dome, rounds out the core ensemble.
After Gary goes missing, SpongeBob and Patrick set off on to rescue him from King Poseidon’s undersea metropolis of vice, the Lost City Of Atlantic City, in a makeshift convertible driven by Otto (Awkwafina), a robot built by Sandy and reprogrammed by Plankton, who has come to realize that SpongeBob, not Mr. Krabs, is his true enemy. Altogether, this plotline amounts to just a little longer than the running time of a single SpongeBob episode. Perhaps with a little imagination, something might have been made of the road trip format, but the only thing it produces is a diverting live-action sequence in which SpongeBob and Patrick find themselves in a dusty Western town full of “zombie cowboy-pirates,” where they meet a wise tumbleweed (Keanu Reeves) and a demonic bandit outlaw named, well, El Diablo (Danny Trejo).
There are some good laughs in there (many courtesy of the reliably funny Berry, who also voiced a dolphin in the more manic The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water), but a lot of it feels like a movie treading water. The animation is for the most part effortless, striking a balance between the digital modeling of Sponge Out Of Water—which often made the characters look like they were molded from plastic—and the traditional flat style of the series. But there are too many montages and musical numbers that seem to be searching for a punchline.
Worst of all, the film often falls back on what has become the most obvious symptom of contemporary IP exhaustion: backstories for all the characters. Do we really need to know the psychological motivations of Squidward? The intentions of Sponge On The Run’s writer-director, Tim Hill, who helped the late Stephen Hillenburg develop the original series, might be noble. But the result mostly serves as a reminder than SpongeBob SquarePants, despite all the fun, is a lucrative modern media franchise like any other.