It’s never easy to stretch 22 minutes of TV comedy into a 90-minute movie; just ask the talented creators of shows like “Strangers with Candy,” “Mr. Show,” “The Kids in the Hall” and “Tim and Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job,” all of which stumbled to varying degrees on the road from small screen to large.
Having already successfully nailed this tricky transition with “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” in 2004, the denizens of Bikini Bottom once again make their way into multiplexes everywhere with a non-stop barrage of sight gags and wordplay that never outstays its welcome. There’s just enough plot and just enough characterization in “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” to keep things moving along, and the jokes are consistently hilarious, with enough variety to tickle the funny bones of old salts and young fishies alike.
A game, live-action Antonio Banderas kicks off the film as pirate Burger Beard, who follows his treasure map to secure a legendary book. (In a gag that will probably sail over most children’s heads, there’s an old-school library check-out card on the inside front cover, showing Captain Kidd and Bluebeard as its earlier readers.) That book contains the story of SpongeBob SquarePants (voiced by Tom Kenny), and fills non-viewers of the TV show in on the basic storyline and cast of characters.
The embittered Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) launches attack after attack on the Krusty Krab, the restaurant where SpongeBob works frying up Krabby Patties, the favorite snack of everyone in the undersea town of Bikini Bottom. Stingy Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) steadfastly guards the secret recipe, but it somehow disappears as SpongeBob foils one of Plankton’s attempts to steal it.
Without Krabby Patties, all of Bikini Bottom descends into “Mad Max”–ian post-apocalyptic frenzy (within seconds, everyone is wearing leather harnesses and face masks), and it’s up to nemeses SpongeBob and Plankton to team up to find the formula and save their friends. The screenplay by Glenn Berger and Jonathan Aibel (“Kung Fu Panda”), from a story by “SpongeBob” vets Stephen Hillenburg and Paul Tibbitt, takes this unlikely team to wild and wonderful places, thanks mostly to a makeshift time machine. (The trippy time-travel sequences alone merit seeing the movie in 3D.)
As the trailers promise, SpongeBob, Plankton, Mr. Krabs, Squidward (Rodger Bumpass), starfish Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) and squirrel Sandy (Carolyn Lawrence) wind up crossing over into the surface world to battle Burger Beard directly, but this skirmish doesn’t take place until well into the third act, no doubt welcome news to those who worried the movie’s hybrid of live-action and animation was merely a gimmick.
The “Sponge Out of Water” sequences, in which the characters graduate from two to three dimensions, never feel visually jarring; our heroes maintain their sense of cartooniness even as they turn into CG creations, thus making their later transition into superheroic versions of themselves a delightful sight gag. When Sandy becomes an actual squirrel, it’s disorienting for her pals but a great bit for the audience.
Most of the voice cast are veterans of the show and have had a good 15 years or so to get the characters just right; this ensemble makes a strong case that you don’t have to cast celebrity names to find the best voice talent. As for Banderas, he so thoroughly throws himself into the silliness that he could have a real future in children’s media; if PBS ever brings back the bilingual “Villa Alegre,” I nominate him for alcalde.
You certainly don’t have to be a fan of the show to find yourself enchanted by the goofball humor. Only the most pun-phobic viewers will be able to resist a food fight wherein Mr. Krabs commands, “Unleash the condiments!” to which SpongeBob replies, “With relish!”