First aired in 1999, the “SpongeBob” animated television show is defined primarily by an aesthetic of chill, off-the-cuff, non-confrontational madness. It is a show left uncontrolled with its own id in a room, forced to confront its own nonsense and live with it and have the most glorious time of its existence simply being itself. It is a wonderful slice of animation as character definition, radical in subtle ways and existential and playful without ever seeming over-worked or tired. Above all, it never really seems to try. It simply exists in its own state, not so much working to function a certain way as laying itself down and exploring whatever comes out of its mind at that moment. It seems gloriously uncontainable, but never too hungry to lash out or rush around for the sake of energy in every direction it can. It’s a show of quiet confusion, aloof froth, and lazy charm. It is something that does not seem to have been produced or created, but found and observed. It is free of exposition, free of explanation. It is pure, un-worked, and unworkable. It seems effortless.
Say what you will about Sponge Out of Water, but this new SpongeBob puts in plenty of effort. It functions less as the mind of a child and more like adults sweating to recapture something that came more naturally to them at a younger age. It is always very obvious that The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water is working very hard to succeed. While the show in its early days was an alien artifact all its own, this one is very much a product. We are very much aware of the fact that it is being produced, that it exists as an entity in the real world. That it was made, and that it does not simply thrive in its own wonderful state; we are aware it is trying to make us laugh, where-as the show simply existed and the laughs were almost assumed.
While the original show was built on a sort of low-key whimsey touched up with light surrealism as a natural extension of its identity in character, this one delves full force into the mind’s eye of surrealism. The original show hinted and sauntered around, slyly rolling jokes off its tongue or slipping them in our pockets unnoticed. This film throws them every which way it can, and crams them in every split-second of down-time it possibly can. It is a very dense film, filled to the brim with bursting, over-flowing energy, and a manic film, never not rushing to get somewhere or make us laugh. It tries very, very hard, and at some level misses the essence of why SpongeBob worked as well as it did ten or twelve years ago.
Here’s the thing though: the last thing anyone would have expected from this film is that it would try at all, let alone very hard. All the signs, from the eight-years-too-late release date to the advertising which captured a certain shriveled-up mixture of sub-Avengers superhero film and Dreamworks-esque punnery, pointed to a lazy, uninspired effort. And lazy and uninspired are the last words anyone would want to apply to Sponge Out of Water . As much as the film doesn’t live up to the hopes that it can rekindle the effervescent, wandered-into-the-mind-of-a-child high of the original show, and as much as it seems like a more stubborn instance of intentionally creating the mind of a child rather than discovering it on its own, it’s still good. Really good in fact. Too good to pass up.
Describing the plot of Sponge Out of Water is an exercise in futility, but it is necessary nonetheless. It is not quite a non-narrative feature in the way of the most deconstructive, challenging childlike head-trips to free up the medium from the encroachment of narrative storytelling over the years. But the episodic nature of the television show it is based on is in full effect, cutting through the film and loosening it up to give it an unhinged sensibility. Things begin with a live action pirate played by Antonio Banderas, whose actions seem lovingly arbitrary and pointedly under-explained (implying that no one really ever can explain the actions of a movie pirate in the first place, for they are arbitrary characters to begin with). He performs a gut-busting send-up of Johnny Depp’s flamboyant alcoholic Keith Richards-on-steroids routine as the most famous modern pirate (dancing about to avoid a trap with the least possible effort in the world and still managing to avoid certain death through sheer chance, and the fact that the trap is seemingly designed to be ineffective in the first place). We’re not two minutes in and we already have a really sterling satire with actual bite (the way his dancing seems as phoned-in, lazy, and fake as humanly possible really is clever). And we haven’t even met our heroes yet.
Soon enough, Banderas finds a book, at which point he begins narrating to us and our focus shifts to the under-sea land of Bikini Bottom, where resident child-savant fry cook and giddy time-bomb SpongeBob Squarepants duels the diminutive ego-with-an-eye Plankton for custody of the Krabby Patty secret formula. Krabby Patties, incidentally, are hamburgers that, in a send-up of the arbitrariness of animated storytelling more generally, serve as a certain social stabilizer for reasons stated with such vagueness they cannot but be intentional. SpongeBob cooks for Mr. Krabs, an even greater egomaniac than Plankton, and the monomaniacal Krabs has made it his life’s mission to capitalize on Bikini Bottom’s love of the sandwich SpongeBob shills out with zest and single-minded commitment. In the midst of the battle however, the formula disappears, and the utopia of Bikini Bottom descends into anarchy and chaos.
Naturally, our sponge and his former nemesis Plankton team up to save the day. From this point, the film descends into a certain blissful state of hyper-active, military-grade, over-worked madness. For a film about social anarchy, it is a remarkably anarchic work, whipping between comedic highs at breakneck speeds and serving up surrealist interventions and non-sequiturs like most films serve up dialogue, or editing, or acting: as a fact, unadorned and unapologetic and as part of its base-level construction embedded deep in the core of its making. It is surrealist and manic in the way that other films are films, more as a statement of objective truth rather than as a detriment/benefit. It is however, released in a world where films stray away from surrealism like it’s a rabid dog, and this if nothing else does make the wacky energy of this film a benefit. This is especially true when the film exhibits a certain playfulness with the spirit of 2D animation, finding the style at its most non-representational and even delving into other mediums (even the much chagrined 3D section at the end gives the characters more an appearance of clay than computer). It is an experimental film, a chance for animators to explore the bounds of their chosen style, and this is something we almost never see in mainstream American animation these days.
Thus, we have a playful film where playing borders on psychotic. Gleeful and zippy like nothing we’ve seen in months, it never comes down from its high or budges an inch from its pulsing opening state. It is a wonderfully arbitrary film, a work that cares nothing for moral or sense or depth (it even mocks the focus of such features in so many other animated films that think of themselves as more serious than they ought to be). It is simply happy to exist, and to play. And play it does, loopily flopping around in its own excitement and finding time to poke at the conventions of deus-ex machinas, put-on moralism, narration, reveling in chance and happenstance and never presupposing that it should or can be truly logical. It is truly a film happy to exist, engorged with joy to be itself.
Even the end-game which resorts to tired old superhero tropes seems more like an experiment, asking what it would be like for this sort of arbitrary storytelling and mile-high surrealism to intrude on a more conventional superhero story and strip it of nuance or meaning. It’s not quite a commentary on superhero fiction, but even the thought that this idea can be entertained says something about SpongeBob’s not inconsiderable achievements. Even in the end, the candy-coated, deliberately flat and broad animation, if a bit too grandiose and swelling for the film’s good, never loses its high-contrast luster, shooting the film along on its gloriously on-a-whim lark-like qualities from beginning to end.
Even better, the film achieves all of this without ever sacrificing the core of its characters. Patrick Star, SpongeBob’s best friend, is a bit too obviously dumb, and resident misanthrope Squidward is underused until the final third, but SpongeBob himself is handled shockingly well. There are never any “character-building” moments per-se (again, the film mocks them too), but it achieves a certain critical miss that defines Bikini Bottom as a place where the only rules that apply are the cartoon logic rules of setting about deliriously plain-faced ids in a location and watching them run amok. Everything is defined according to character interaction, and the only limits are the ones by which the character’s non-logical natures are defined. To put it simply, Sponge Out of Water asks that we throw out our logic in favor of the logic of its characters, and it never for a second breaks this logic. This is the essence of any cartoon, even when it asks that those characters willfully play around with post-structuralism and the limits of fiction (see Duck Amuck, the most brilliant few minutes of animation-as-commentary ever drawn). Sponge Out of Water inserts itself right into the center of this conversation, and it never shies away from exposing the limits of what its characters, as they are defined, can do.
Maybe it’s just that the well is long dry for 2D animated filmmaking and that it is such a pleasure to see a film even try for 2D. Maybe it’s that the film seems so eager for us to like it, so energetic and thick-on-the-ground with humor and subversive surrealism. Maybe it’s the fact that it actually does experiment with storytelling and animation at the same time, and that it honestly uses the two in conjunction with one another to recreate a sort of almost avant-garde stream-of-consciousness children’s program. Maybe it’s the fact that it actually does recreate this spirit of children’s programming, however forced it sometimes seems along the way in locating this zany edge. I’m not sure exactly why Sponge Out of Water works as well as it does, but it is undeniably the work of a group of people who very much cared about their product, who felt passionate about it and debated over every frame and second of its final form. Maybe thats a little too finecky for such a gloriously immature film, and maybe it’s not quite special in the abstract, especially in relation to the original show. But animation in the 2010s is a dark, corporate time, and Sponge Out of Water does not exist in a vacuum. For now, in 2015, Sponge Out of Water is special, and it’s damn good too.