Many of us parents suffer through a lot of insipid kid shows for the sake of keeping our young 'uns company—partly to monitor what they watch, partly in the hope that an occasional interjection—"Now, why would he want to do that? Isn't that strange? Don't you think that's the silliest thing? Hello?"—will break the hypnotic-trance state before they become entirely passive, zombielike receptacles. We've come to look on Stephen Hillenburg's SpongeBob SquarePants as a gift—a joyful spasm of wacked-out surrealism featuring one of the sweetest characters in cartoondom.
This kitchen-sponge-shaped sea sponge with two widely spaced front teeth and a laugh like a dolphin on a sugar high is television's most happy-go-lucky optimist, a child-man who takes joy in even a minimum-wage dead-end fast-food job—at the bottom of the ocean, no less. Each episode is nautical whimsy bordering on nonsense, with ukulele music and flower-cloud backdrops: It's old-fashioned squash-and-stretch animation wedded to a blissfully funny, slacker-stoner worldview that, as my colleague Virginia Heffernan wrote, "disdains sanctimony and hypocrisy far more than bad behavior" and "puts a premium on go-along-get-along happiness." At 11 short minutes, the length of a SpongeBobSquarePants cartoon, it's just about perfection.
The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (Paramount) is considerably longer than 11 minutes, and it's not just an elasticized, padded-up short. The film tells a classic story, with a classic, three-act, Robert-McKee-certified screenplay structure. To save Mr. Krabs, SpongeBob's boss at the Krusty Krab, from execution, SpongeBob and his imbecilic purple starfish pal Patrick must embark on a heroic quest to recover the crown of King Neptune, the tyrannical ruler of Bikini Bottom.
Who framed Mr. Krabs? Why, none other than that insanely jealous, one-eyed proprietor of the rival restaurant, the Chum Bucket, Plankton—a tiny protozoan who's forever being stepped on and smooshed at the height of his megalomaniacal rants. After being scraped off SpongeBob's shoe, Plankton—voiced by a guy who calls himself "Mr. Lawrence" and sounds like Fred Flintstone off his meds—announces he's going to get the recipe for Krabby Patties and bring the world to its knees—to which SpongeBob replies, cheerfully, "Well, good luck with that!" It's a measure of his inability even to comprehend the mendacity of the world that he'd risk his life for Mr. Krabs after being passed over for manager of the Krusty Krab 2—and after a post-heartbreak ice cream bender at Goofy Goober's that leaves him a flaming-eyed wreck.
All this is amusing enough, but I kept waiting for the story to zigzag and go hurtling off into the furthest reaches of absurdity. (One of my favorite SpongeBob cartoons, "Dying for Pie," ends with an H-bomb explosion in Bikini Bottom—substituting, no doubt, for Bikini Atoll.) The movie does get crazy, sort of, finally, but the path is pretty straight—or, as they say in the screenplay biz, linear. King Neptune, voiced by Jeffrey Tambor, is a dull despot, imported from a more Disneyish cartoon universe, and his friendly daughter, a bespectacled mermaid named Mindy (voiced by Scarlett Johanssen), is only mildly more diverting, largely thanks to Patrick's habit of drooling and babbling, "She's hot," whenever she's in the vicinity. The first part of the movie isn't slow, exactly. It's just that the scaffolding is too visible.
Things pick up when SpongeBob and Patrick, mistakenly convinced of their invincibility, do a nonchalant soft-shoe slap-and-tickle in the midst of an abyss, as sundry humongous tentacled creatures prepare to eat them. And there are two amazing live-action encounters. One is with a friendly David Hasselhoff, to whose leg hairs SpongeBob and Patrick cling during a climactic escape from a hit-man fish (hit-fish?) rasped by Alec Baldwin. The other even more momentous meeting is with an unfriendly cyclops—actually, a cackling deep-sea diver fond of drying out sea creatures and turning them into kitschy knickknacks. Here Hillenburg and his animators subject us to the horrifying—mythically horrifying—spectacle of SpongeBob and Patrick drying out under a heat lamp into a real kitchen sponge and a dead starfish. It's enough to make you drop to your knees and pray to be whisked back into the cartoon universe, where fish eat at fast-food joints—and you are pretty quickly, thank heaven.
As SpongeBob, Tom Kenny has a Pee-Wee-Herman-meets-Jerry-Lewis-on-helium vocal attack, but he makes the part thoroughly his own: It's Pee-Wee without the archness, Jerry lofted by the purest delight. Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke, as the butt-cheek-flashing starfish, make beautiful duets—the high-pitched porpoise and the basso doofus. There's plenty to treasure in The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, but for all the spit-and-polish animation and the rollicking soundtrack (which includes an original song by the Flaming Lips, as well as Ween's gorgeous "Ocean Man," from their Mollusk album), this isn't the yellow one's most thrilling hour—or 80 minutes. I know Hillenburg didn't want to make a SpongeBob episode stretched out. He wanted a movie with a beginning, middle, and end, and a fine inspirational message that childlike dorks can be heroes, too. But I like my SpongeBob a little less lumbering, a little more free-associational, without that big, heavy anchor of a story structure to weigh him down.