There’s a lot of talk about the secret formula behind delicious Krabby Patties in “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run,” but the real secret formula lies in the creative trust that has managed to create not one, not two, but now three thoroughly entertaining feature-length adaptations of the long-running TV show.
In an era when so many 25-page children’s books or eight-minute animated shorts have been bloated beyond proportion on their way to becoming 90-minute movies, Team SpongeBob deserves credit for unlocking the alchemy behind building up and building out a storyline and a set of characters without losing sight of what made the original beloved in the first place.
This time around, writer-director Tim Hill steps in, and he’s managed to take the goofy denizens of Bikini Bottom on a road trip that is visually dazzling and almost consistently hilarious, mixing verbal and physical humor, as well as some perfectly chosen cameos, both in-person and among the voice cast. (Celebrity is usually the last refuge of a brainless kid movie, but “Sponge on the Run” offers some examples on how to include them in a clever way.)
It’s just another day under the sea, with the always-upbeat SpongeBob (voiced by Tom Kenny) hanging out with best pal Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) and putting in a full day’s work at the Krusty Krab, much to the consternation of his irritated neighbor and co-worker Squidward (Rodger Bumpass). The scheming Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) plots once again to steal the Krabby Patty formula from the Krusty Krab’s owner Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown), but Plankton’s computer-wife Karen (Jill Talley) points out that the real way to undermine the Krusty Krab is to get SpongeBob out of the way.
Plankton nefariously steals SpongeBob’s beloved snail pet Gary and gives it to the vain Poseidon (Matt Berry, “What We Do in the Shadows”), who has eradicated the local snail population by using their slime as part of his skin-care regimen. The distraught SpongeBob and faithful wingman Patrick make their way to the Lost City of Atlantic City to retrieve Gary, getting help along the way from a wise and helpful tumbleweed named Sage (Keanu Reeves, of course).
Hill provides enough plot and stakes to get viewers through 91 minutes of TV-sized silliness, but he also wisely never lets either get in the way of the laughs, which are plentiful here. From the outrageous physical permutations of the characters (SpongeBob cleans the kitchen by absorbing mop water and then squirting it out his various pores) to more subtle bits (“Sponge on the Run” has one of the best diegetic-music gags since the orchestra bus in “High Anxiety”), the sponge-and-his-snail narrative never gets in the way of the bit.
If there’s one section that drags, it’s when all of SpongeBob’s Bikini Bottom pals — including squirrel Sandy Cheeks (Carolyn Lawrence) — give flashback-testimonials to how kind and selfless SpongeBob is. The whole segment feels like a backdoor pilot for the upcoming Paramount+ series “Kamp Koral: SpongeBob’s Under Years,” which follows the adventures of these characters as children.
Director of photography Peter Lyons Collister and the team of animators very effectively expand the TV show’s universe by keeping the bright flatness of Bikini Bottom and then contrasting it with the richer palette and more garish lighting of Poseidon’s domain. And Berry’s plummy Poseidon makes for a wonderful addition to the accomplished TV cast, as does Reeves and, in some lovely fleeting appearances, Tiffany Haddish (as an animated Master of Ceremonies), Snoop Dogg, and Danny Trejo. (I laughed every time they played the theme song for Trejo’s character: “El Diablo/El Diablo/El Diablo … very bad man.”)
Tim Hill has had a fascinating career, mostly in kids/family films, from the grating “Hop” and “Alvin and the Chipmunks” to the underrated and delightful “Max Keeble’s Big Move” and “Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever.” But as a veteran of SpongeBob’s TV, movie, and even video-game incarnations, he’s found the perfect balance in “Sponge Out of Water,” which is dedicated to SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg, who passed away in 2018. Whatever their age or familiarity level with these characters, this is that rare family film that could actually entertain an entire family.
Parents looking to watch something with their children — or just to distract their children for 91 minutes — will do better with this film than, say, the wretched 2021 “Tom & Jerry.” Don’t have kids? It’s a great double-feature with “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.” Either way, this is a testament to why SpongeBob SquarePants and his pals have been so popular for more than two decades.
“The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” premieres on Paramount+ and PVOD March 4.