There’s a scene midway through Tim Hill’s The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run (henceforth referred to as The SpongeBob Movie) that neatly mirrors the predicament that its current showrunners — and, to a lesser extent, corporate overlords — have with the little fry cook and his adventures. In the ruins of the Krusty Krab sits Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown), having been battered and beaten by a bunch of angry would-be customers that, because said Sponge is indeed on the run, he can’t serve Krabby Patties to, begins to lament his position in life to his would-be enemy, Plankton. Of course, Plankton’s partially to blame for Spongebob (Tom Kenny) and Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) venturing off to Atlantic City in order to rescue Gary the meowing Snail from the clutches of King Poseidon (Matt Berry), but the greedy crab doesn’t know that. Instead of putting up a fight, he just tosses over the secret formula to the Krabby Patty, the hamburger whose hidden mysteries the little fellow has been hunting for the better part of two decades now, and resigns to his office. SpongeBob was the thing that held his business together, and, as such, his life. Without him, he’s nothing.
The same could be said of the show in the absence of its creator, Stephen Hillenburg, who passed away in 2018, and whose presence as an executive producer and as a director on the first film, informed nearly every aspect of the previous SpongeBob films. Like most great creators, Hillenburg wanted most of his creations to be both personal — his specific tastes inform almost every frame, even down to the first film’s soundtrack, which features songs by Ween, Wilco, The Shins and The Flaming Lips — and timeless, which is why the largest acknowledgement to reality at that particular moment was a live-action cameo from David Hasselhoff, who had long since slid into well-earned camp comfort, and the animation was still hand-drawn, given that no one has ever criticized the Looney Tunes shorts for looking dated. Even in the second film, Sponge Out of Water, whose advertising campaign featured the key cast of characters heading on to land with superpowers to fight bad guys and elicited groans from all theaters all across the country when the trailer played, was ultimately pretty solid, the offending bits only being an extended gag and a brief departure from the rest of the film, which was surprisingly in-line with the established standards of the series.
Still, the fact that the series went beyond the first film, even, was a betrayal of Hillenburg’s wishes, who left the show after it became clear that Nickelodeon wasn’t about to slaughter their golden goose. Most early fans of the show noticed a tremendous drop-off in quality, and a lot of them probably wondered why they weren’t laughing along with it anymore. For some, sure, they probably were putting away childish things, for others, well, the series actually did get markedly worse, but you could, at the very least, count on the films to be good. But, now that Hillenburg’s involvement with his creations has come to a tragically permanent ending, the profit-driven ethos of those fraught seasons of post-2004 cartoons has made its way to the big screen — or it would have, if not for the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, Sponge on the Run is premiering on Viacom’s new streaming service, Paramount+, at least on these shores (Netflix users outside of the states have had access to the film since Christmas), paired with the very reason for its existence: a number of episodes of the SpongeBob prequel cartoon, Kamp Koral, flashbacks to which make up much of the film’s back half. Yes, that’s right: it’s not enough that a SpongeBob movie be content as a money-making enterprise in its own right, it has to be an extended advertisement for #content, most of which will be paved over in the months to come by some other ephemeral confection.
If one can say anything of The SpongeBob Movie, it’s definitely a product of its time: the highly-detailed CGI animation feels like it was taken out of Pixar’s garbage, given that it looks both incredibly expensive and semi-realistic when it wants, but it’s a bad translation of the cartoon’s aesthetic to the third dimension. The classical ugly hyper-details in SpongeBob close-ups are pretty much impossible to achieve with it, given that the weird velvety texture that adorns He Who Lives In A Pineapple Under The Sea is nearly in the uncanny valley, and it will undoubtedly look dated as fuck in five years time when one is able to reproduce similar graphics on their PC or gaming console (provided that they’re available by then). Its humor feels like someone attempted to write SpongeBob-style absurdist puns and surrealist gags but forgot the intangible little details that made it so amusing and incredibly meme-worthy. Instead, it’s stacked with cameos — sure, the vaunted Keanu Reeves as a tumbleweed named Sage is decent for a chuckle, though he’s significantly more involved in the plot than one might assume, yet his first appearance is followed up by a Snoop Dogg-led musical number and an extended Western riff with Danny Trejo. Those doing voices are less egregious, such as the aforementioned Barry and Awkwafina, but I’m sure the groan I let out when Tiffany Haddish made her appearance as a dinner theater emcee named “Tiffany Haddock” could be felt on the Richter Scale, and I’m sorry to all in New England if I happened to ruin your good china.
The film’s plot is, essentially, a warmed-over version of the first SpongeBob movie without any of the things or insights that made that film special — there was a reasonably gooey core there, as Hillenburg used the apex of his creation’s popularity to explore what, exactly, it means to be an “adult” or a “man,” some of which is unsuccessfully pantomimed here — but, again, this makes sense: all the things that made a show like SpongeBob endearing to millions of children and their parents, despite how crassly it was exploited by its corporate masters over the years, are now fully gone, and, in a way, we’re perhaps lucky that this didn’t hit theaters. Sure, you wouldn’t have had to sit in silence with a crowd for ninety minutes, but it also makes Paramount’s ambitions clearer. Framed as a bonus treat for those willing to sign up for a rebranded CBS All-Access like the football phone you’d get from a Sports Illustrated subscription, they don’t care if you like this or if it really is any good. They’re just hoping that you’ll forget to cancel your subscription for a few months until they’re able to finally find that killer app that will somehow separate them from Peacock, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, Showtime (which you have to pay separately for — this is Viacom after all), Disney+, Netflix and every other entrant into the streaming sphere that might pop up in the interim? With an ethos like that, it’s hard to make compelling films, regardless of whether or not one thinks they’re “cinema,” and The SpongeBob Movie makes for an awful way to see Hillenburg’s very personal creation transition into being another bullet in Viacom’s IP clip.