SpongeBob Squarepants burst onto the scene in 1999 with his trademark giggle and enough energy to power an entire city, never looking back since. More than 20 years after his debut, SpongeBob is still doing his best to charm kids and annoy parents, cementing himself as a true TV icon of our era. Nickelodeon and Paramount have unsurprisingly taken multiple opportunities to translate that small-screen fame into big-screen money with a few different SpongeBob feature films over the years. While the first SpongeBob movie kept the same animation style as the animated series, subsequent efforts have gone further and further from the look of the cartoon in an effort to "reinvent" SpongeBob for feature audiences.
The newest of these projects is The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run, and it represents the furthest departure from the TV animation aesthetic yet. The new film, which moved from theaters to an exclusive debut on the Paramount+ streaming service, has the same absurd sense of humor and heart as its television predecessor, but the animation style is too bulky and out of place for this to feel like a great SpongeBob project.
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run tells a very SpongeBob story: Plankton snail-naps Gary and sells him to Poseidon (who uses snail goo as facial cream) in order to get The Krusty Krab's infamous burger recipe. Ever the Sam to SpongeBob's Frodo, Patrick joins his best pal on a quest to The Lost City of Atlantic City to get Gary back.
This journey is a strange one, to the say the least, but that's what you've come to expect from anything SpongeBob-related. At the onset of their journey, SpongeBob and Patrick have a joint "vision" while they're sleeping that takes them to an abandoned Western town filled with cowboy pirate zombies, all who are under the control of Danny Trejo. (These are all real people, mind you, not cartoons.) Only with the advice of Keanu Reeves — an actual sage that comes in the form of a cindering tumbleweed, a la Moses and the burning bush — are SpongeBob and Patrick able to conquer Trejo's undead army, which apparently doubles as the set of a Snoop Dogg music video.
And all of that is just from one sequence in the first half of the movie. SpongeBob Squarepants is usually at its best when it cranks the weird up to 11. That's why so many of us fell in love with the franchise in the first place. It was more exciting than anything else on Nickelodeon at the time. SpongeBob is so beloved because it bridges those worlds, and Sponge on the Run certainly accomplishes that.
Not every joke in this movie lands. The story doesn't really offer anything in the way of substance or stakes — we all know Gary will be just fine. It lacks the emotional depth and humor of the best SpongeBob episodes out there, but it's more than serviceable and sits right alongside the career average of the Nickelodeon series. It's a weird, harmless, fun-loving SpongeBob. You absolutely get what you're paying (err, subscribing) for in that regard.
A 90-minute SpongeBob episode is a great idea, in theory, but Sponge on the Run just doesn't feel one bit like the SpongeBob so many have come to love. Nickelodeon and Paramount have been touting this movie as the first fully-CG SpongeBob picture like it's something to be proud of. It is certainly a technical achievement, and I'm not saying it necessarily looks "bad." The sets in Bikini Bottom and Atlantic City are phenomenal! But this animation style just doesn't work for SpongeBob.
The characters look almost fuzzy in texture, which is especially unpleasant when you remember they're all underwater. A lot of the fluidity of their facial moments is gone, replaced by bulky lips and eyes that have trouble keeping up with the pace of their words and expressions.
My first thought was that this style was designed to be seen on the big screen, so perhaps it just lost a little something in its move to Paramount+. But this same aesthetic is being brought to the SpongeBob prequel TV series, Kamp Koral. It also has the same look being used for the Rugrats reboot. This is clearly a direction Nickelodeon is choosing to move in going forward. Unfortunately, it lacks the warmth of the original series. While it might work with brand new IP created to fit this vision, using it as a means to "update" iconic shows of the past feels jarring.
It's hard to get past the strange new look of SpongeBob, but spending time with the SquarePants'd goofball has always been an exercise in turning off your mind for a bit. There are some genuinely funny sequences in this movie. Keanu Reeves as the meta-spiritual adviser is never not entertaining. Matt Berry (What We Do in the Shadows) is an absolute riot each and every time his vain and bumbling Poseidon opens his mouth. Plankton even has an uncharacteristically intriguing arc that turns out to be the best subplot of the film. There's really only one thing in this movie that doesn't work, it just so happens to be the hardest thing to ignore.
Sponge on the Run is like an old friend you've known for years who shows up to your house after what feels like ages apart, donning a different look than the last time you saw them. It's ugly and unflattering, but they're so proud of their new fedora and rhinestone cowboy boots that you wonder if you should even bring it up. They're a wonderful friend, after all, what's the harm in a little bad fashion sense?
So you sit there all night, chatting, have a genuinely great time with your pal, until your eyes drift back to that horrible fedora on their head. Has no one told them how bad it looks? Is it supposed to be your job? Eventually, the friend leaves, and you wonder as they drive away if you should've said something about that awful outfit. You desperately hope that someone else will tell them soon so that you don't have to.
I wish someone would've told SpongeBob.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run debuts on-demand and on Paramount+ March 4th.