DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In 1999, Nickelodeon launched the cartoon series "SpongeBob SquarePants," created by animator and former marine biologist, Stephen Hillenburg. The sea sponge, and his starfish, squid, snail and other friends, have now appeared in over a hundred shorts and two feature films. The second, "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water," opens this week. Film critic David Edelstein plunged in eagerly and has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: A decade ago, I got a dream newspaper assignment to fly to LA and talk to Stephen Hillenburg and his colleagues about turning their Nickelodeon smash, "SpongeBob SquarePants," into a feature film. On TV, the "SpongeBob" cartoons were 11 minutes - the perfect length of time to be bombarded by freeform, surreal gags, interspersed by the high-pitched chortles of their happy-go-lucky sea sponge hero - but a full-length movie? Hillenburg was sure that the same level of intensity over 80 minutes would wear the audience out, that a feature needed a more conventional narrative arc and more even pacing. And you know what? He was wrong.
"The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie," released in 2004, had delightful bits and a killer soundtrack, but it was too smooth, too stately. That story structure was like an anchor weighing it down. What I missed were those free-associational spasms of craziness that make "SpongeBob," at its best, so irrationally entertaining. Now comes the second feature, "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water," which looks as if it had a lower budget. The narrative is slipshod, shambolic, nonsensical. The few song fragments are punishingly discordant. It's visually an eyesore, a kaleidoscope of bright, mismatched colors and in 3-D, too, to make your headache even stronger. It's a big, loud, choppy, hit-and-miss, in-your-face, glorious triumph. Bang, they hit the bull's-eye.
It begins as all "SpongeBob" episodes do, with a hairy pirate who's there to sing the theme that whisks us to the undersea world of Bikini Bottom, with its ukulele music and flower-cloud backdrops. But wait, here, he's live-action and played by Antonio Banderas, and he's on an "Indiana Jones"-like quest to find a magic book. After dueling with a skeleton and shushing some card-playing seagulls, the pirate reads aloud from that mysterious tome, a story of wholesale destruction, societal collapse, apocalypse, all triggered by the loss of the recipe for the wildly addictive Krabby Patties from the Krusty Krab restaurant where SpongeBob works and his best friend, Patrick, the fat, pink, dimwitted starfish, eats. I know what you're thinking - this has something to do with Plankton, the tiny but very loud owner of the rival, Chum Bucket, restaurant. And you'd be right to an extent. Plankton did engineer a scheme involving pickle torpedoes, a giant robot and a Trojan horse-like coin to get into the Krusty Krab's safe - I have a feeling I'm losing you. The best thing about this movie is that it can't be explained, though you can hear how high the stakes are when Mr. Krab straps Plankton down, and with SpongeBob watching, uses diabolical means to recover the recipe.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE OUT OF WATER")
TOM KENNY: (As SpongeBob SquarePants) Mr. Krabs, I'm telling you he's innocent.
LAWRENCE OSOWSKI: (As Plankton) What're you going to do, Krabs, pour hot oil on me or put bamboo shoots under my nails?
CLANCY BROWN: (As Mr. Krabs) No, knock-knock.
OSOWSKI: (As Plankton) Knock-knock jokes? I can do this all day, Krabs.
BROWN: (As Mr. Krabs) Knock-knock.
OSOWSKI: (As Plankton) Oh, boy. Who's there?
BROWN: (As Mr. Krabs) Jimmy.
OSOWSKI: (As Plankton) Jimmy who?
BROWN: (As Mr. Krabs) Jimmy back my formula, Plankton.
OSOWSKI: (As Plankton) Well, that's stupid, but how is it torture?
BROWN: (As Mr. Krabs) (Laughter) You'll see.
KENNY: (As SpongeBob SquarePants) Jimmy back my formula. Oh, I get it (laughter).
OSOWSKI: (As Plankton) (Screaming) Make it stop, Krabs. Make it stop.
EDELSTEIN: The two main characters in "SpongeBob: Out Of Water" aren't, as usual, SpongeBob and his buddy, Patrick, but SpongeBob and the arch-villain, Plankton, who's forced to team up despite being so selfish, he can't pronounce the word team. They build a time machine. They morph into another dimension. They transform into Marvel-like superheroes.
But never mind the plot. The point is that Tom Kenny's SpongeBob voice, which sounds like Pee-wee Herman meets Jerry Lewis on helium, pairs beautifully with the Plankton of an actor who calls himself Mr. Lawrence and sounds like an over-caffeinated Fred Flintstone.
I was recently reading a book on how to write that had tricks to get your juices flowing, like opening a random book to a random page and picking three random words. Could that explain how the filmmakers came up with the extraterrestrial bottlenose dolphin, whose Shakespearean orations are broken by chatters, and whose job it is to keep the planets Jupiter and Saturn from colliding? Don't see "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water" if you don't want to be driven crazy by questions like that. But I'm going to see it again this weekend. I long for that craziness. It's like a Krabby Patty for the brain.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On the next FRESH AIR, Michael Keaton talks about starring in "Birdman." He's been nominated for an Oscar for his performance. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.