Sunday, March 29, 2015

REVIEW: "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water" (2015)

March 29, 2015

In The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, SpongeBob and company (including best friend Patrick, grouchy neighbor Squidward, miserly boss Mr. Krabs, squirrel Sandy, and culinary nemesis Plankton) go on a quest to find and bring back the secret formula for the infamous Krabby Patty. To do so, they go to the surface, and thereby change from cell-animated creatures to CGI counterparts. Thus, the film is a mending (and, in a way, a transition) of animation styles, from 2D to 3D, with a little stop-motion thrown in, along with live-action segments featuring Antonio Banderas as the villainous pirate Burger Beard. The film is not only a creative mending of said styles of animation and filmmaking, but also something of a commercially- and critically-successful return for the hand-drawn feature to the silver screen.

Though the medium of hand-drawn animation became popularized in and since the 1920s by way of Disney, Warner Brothers, MGM, and Paramount (to name a few), it has become a scarce entity throughout the last decade due to the rise in popularity of 3D animation. In fact, Disney itself had not had a major hand-drawn success (financially and receptively) since The Lion King over twenty years ago. Warner Brothers has not had a feature film starring its popular Looney Tunes characters in over ten years. Twentieth Century Fox opened a new animation division in the mid 90s with the success of their first feature (Anastasia, 1997), only to be closed down after the financial failure of their second feature (Titan A.E., 2000). Even DreamWorks, which began making hand-drawn films and CGI films simultaneously, shut down its former division in the early 2000s and dedicated itself solely to the latter.

Most of the success of hand-drawn animation in recent years has been found on television, from shows like Adventure Time (Cartoon Network) to Phineas and Ferb (Disney) to Avatar: The Last Airbender (Nickelodeon). That's not to say there haven't been acclaimed feature films on the critical and awards-season circuit. Tokyo-based Studio Ghibli (creators of The Secret World of Arriety and the Oscar-nominated The Wind Rises) and the equally-successful GKids (the independent studio behind The Secret of Kells, Ernest and Celestine, and last year's Oscar-nominated Song of the Sea) have amazed audiences and critics with captivating stories full of fantasy, adventure and drama.

But it's been years since Hollywood has produced a hand-drawn feature that was both a commercial and critical success. The last feature to do so was probably The Simpsons Movie (2007), a Twentieth Century Fox-produced comedy based on the long-running T.V. series (which celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary last year). And Disney (the studio that pioneered the animated feature with the unparalleled Snow White in the 1930s) returned to form with The Princess and the Frog (2009), yet has not made a 2D animated feature since the under-appreciated Winnie the Pooh (2011). I long for the day when hand-drawn features--particularly from Disney--make an impression at and beyond the box-office like they used to, and much the same way recent films like Frozen and The Lego Movie have. For the time being, though, it is fun to see the medium on screen in the form of the adventures of a "little square dude" (as Sandy Cheeks initially called him) and company.

The main characters under water in 2D (top),
and on land in 3D (bottom).
"SpongeBob SquarePants" made his debut in the spring of 1999 on Nickelodeon. After two years on the air, it soon became the highest-rated "kids" show on television, and eventually the longest-running animated series on Nickelodeon (besting the former record-breaking "Rugrats"). I was an obsessive fan of the show in middle school and particularly high school, and have enjoyed (most of) the silly, offbeat, and sometimes crazy adventures of Mr. SquarePants and company.

In recent years, due to my ever-growing observant, informative, and discerning worldview toward pop culture and media, I've lost interest in the series and leaned towards stories (particularly movies) that focused more on longevity and timelessness, and less on clueless hilarity and over-the-top ridiculousness (qualities I accuse the Nickelodeon and Disney Channels for doing nowadays). That being said, I was surprised by how this fifteen-year-old invertebrate still held up in today's digital age, and how his strange-but-cheerful optimism still endured.

According to IMDb, many of the staff from seasons one through three of the show returned to work on this film. And the indication of the show's earlier appeal is on display, while embracing a better approach to the material than in previous seasons (a large majority of which I, myself, have not absorbed, so to speak). There are even some clever homages to a few episodes from those earlier seasons.

Weeks after initially seeing the film, I considered its structure and concluded that it works almost like three segments (or episodes) into one feature. Episode One includes Bikini Bottom as we know it. (This part of the film is a bit slow, and feels more like an episode than anything else.) The turning point comes when Mr. Krabs' business rival Plankton's latest attempt to steal the secret Krabby Patty formula backfires as said formula miraculously disappears, sending the town into a Mad Max-style, post-apocalyptic frenzy.

Episode Two includes SpongeBob and Plankton unexpectedly teaming up to try and set right what has been wrong. (Easier said than done, obviously.) In the process, they build a time machine and encounter a galactic dolphin. This is where the film truly gets entertaining and hilarious from hereon. And the turning point: "I smells Krabby Patties!"

Episode Three consists of SpongeBob and the gang--actually, just him and the aforementioned characters--going to the surface (with some mystical help), landing on a beach in never-before-seen 3D form, and becoming superheroes who make due with Burger Beard and his pirate ship/food truck. In the process, characters come together a la Toy Story 3 and learn (if only for a moment) what "teamwork" is.

Possibly a parody of The Avengers?: 
Sour Note (Squidward), the Rodent (Sandy), Sir Pinch-A-Lot (Mr. Krabs), 
Plank-Ton (Plankton), Invincibubble (SpongeBob), and Mr. Superawesomeness (Patrick).
Unlike its predecessor, which had its moments though a darker context and some questionably-suggestive sight gags, this follow-up is more fun, more unexpected, and more recommendable. And other than helping make February a successful month for animated features for a second year in a row, The SpongeBob Movie has another thing in common with The Lego Movie. It works as a culmination of high art and low art, blending the most absurd elements and surprises (post-apocalyptic mayhem, time travel, superheroes battling pirates) while paying silly homage to action/adventures from Pirates of the Caribbean to 2001: A Space Odyssey and even possibly The Avengers, without getting very serious or unsettling. Even current music icon Pharrell Williams, thanks to his successful contributions to the Despicable Me franchise, adds colorful tunes to the mix.

While it may not bear the title of "Greatest Movie Ever Made" or become a classic anytime soon (nor appealing to everyone, for that matter), The SpongeBob Movie doesn't lack for creativity, silliness, or idiosyncrasy. 

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