Cartoons got weird.
I remember when it began happening, and I'd argue one of the major touchstones for modern animation in all forms is John Kricfalusi's “Ren & Stimpy.” When that show hadn't gone on the air yet, tapes of it were circulation in the animation community in LA, and I remember talking to a great animator named Eddie Fitzgerald about the show. He was positively evangelical. He said that the show was going to change the way animation looked and the sort of animation that would get produced. He had already decided that he was going to quit what he was doing at the time specifically so he could go work for Spumco. He was a true believer, and he wasn't the only animator who sounded that way when talking about that show.
In the years since, there's been a rise of not only a new kind of hyper-ugly aesthetic but also a storytelling style that is so resolutely post-modern that even Charlie Kaufman would say, “Whoa, hey, what about telling a nice story?” And if there's any property that embraces both of those things, it is the long-running and still wildly successful “Spongebob Squarepants.”
The second feature film produced based on the show, “Sponge Out Of Water” is completely ridiculous. There is no underlying moral lesson here for kids, and there's no attempt to dress this up into something more serious than a regular episode of the show. I'm not an expert on the series. It's not something my own boys watch often. But I've seen a few episodes, and I know that there is a recurring gag about Plankton (Mr. Lawrence), owner of the Chum Bucket, trying to steal the recipe for the Crabby Patty, the hamburger served at the restaurant owned by Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown). SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) works to defend the recipe, but as the movie opens, Plankton makes his biggest attempt yet, involving time travel, a giant robot, and more than one bomber. This sets off a completely preposterous storyline that involves Burger Beard (Antonio Banderas), a live-action pirate who has a magic book that allows him to do almost anything within this insane world, including stealing the recipe for himself so he can open a beachside food truck.
The film is frantic from start to finish, and I suspect it will wear some people down completely. I thought there was a point where it stopped being funny and started being exhausting, but my kids went positively ballistic for it. They laughed start to finish, and they couldn't stop talking about it all the way home. There's a big difference in their energy after a film they love and a film they don't. They're at the age where they don't really ever outright say they dislike something, but they can't fake the enthusiasm that they feel at the end of something that really connects.
The ad campaign largely leans on the material from the last half-hour of the film, but there's a lot of ground that the film covers before that. Post-apocalyptic jokes, a tour of the inside of SpongeBob's head, and about 50 other excuses for long surreal landslides of jokes and imagery make up the majority of the running time. Director Paul Tibbitt has done a nice job of taking full advantage of the 3D and the bigscreen format, and the script by Glenn Berger & Jonathan Aibel is go-for-broke in its attitude. I'm not sure I'm a converted SpongeBob fan, but I can admire the energy of this thing. With a voice cast that includes Tim Conway, Eddie Deezen, Cree Summer, Billy West, Bill Fagerbakke, Rodger Bumpass, Jill Talley, and more, it's brightly animated and has an aggressive visual attitude. For fans of the show, I would imagine this is going to be a really nice encapsulation of the sort of thing that has kept the series on the air and the characters fresh in the 15 years they've been around.
“The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” is in theaters today.