The best parts have been held hostage by a confused amalgam of mediocrity and brand management.
- ⭐️Keanu Reeves is excellent.
- ⭐️The Old West scene... trust us, it's perfect.
- ⭐️This plot feels lazy, and the jokes only sometimes land.
- The movie straight-up stops for an extended 'Kamp Koral' commercial.
As the credits rolled on The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run on Paramount+, I found that I still couldn't quite reconcile what I'd just watched into a coherently whole experience. I grew up on SpongeBob Squarepants, and while I wouldn’t say that I’m a dedicated fan or even have much stake in this world or these characters, I have a certain fondness for the surreal line that the late Stephen Hillenburg’s show walked, absurdly over the top while not devolving into loud white noise. Sponge on the Run occasionally hits those high notes of incredulous insanity, but it can’t sustain that level of engagement throughout, sometimes insidiously running entirely counter to the spirit of the show that spawned it. The best parts, the parts of the SpongeBob I once enjoyed, have been held hostage by a confused amalgam of mediocrity and brand management, and the jarring disparity in comedic quality from scene to scene is like whiplash.
The film’s first act feels very familiar to anyone who has seen an episode of the show. Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) wants the Krabby Patty secret formula, SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) unwittingly foils his plan, you know the drill. The biggest change is obviously the animation's transition to the third dimension, which does a decent job of replicating the gross specifics of the original hand-drawn style but still occasionally feels just a bit off in the translation. (Sandy the Squirrel’s fur texture is downright hard to look at.) As far as Bikini Bottom antics go, however, it’s pretty boilerplate and bog-standard, rarely raising the requisite chuckle for a slapstick cartoon.
The plot becomes more promising with the revelation that SpongeBob’s pet snail Gary has been kidnapped by King Neptune (Matt Berry) for his slime to be used as skin cream. SpongeBob and Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) set out on a road trip driven by the malfunctioning robot Otto (Awkwafina, given surprisingly little to do), and for a second, you might think the film will finally deliver on the heightened absurdity that the previous two SpongeBob films delivered on. A complete non-sequitur brings SpongeBob and Patrick to a Western town where they meet a living tumbleweed played by the human face of Keanu Reeves, and the absolutely wild, left-field humor that overtakes the film for this sequence feels like coming home. But once all the antics settle down and the duo find themselves returned to their regularly scheduled program, it not only feels like the film shoved all its energy into that one scene, but that scene could almost be entirely excised from the film without consequence to the lazy plotting to follow.
This isn’t to say that a SpongeBob movie needs to be surprising to win you over. Far from it, the lovable stupidity of the sponge and starfish duo means that you have plenty of license to let plot take a backseat in favor of cartoon shenanigans, especially those that completely leave the plot behind. But most of the gags simply feel uninspired, particularly once the film hits Neptune’s home turf of The Lost City of Atlantic City, and while the occasional sight gag or line read will recapture the magic, the film is mostly content to coast on meeting baseline expectations.
That is, until the movie comes to a screeching halt so that every one of SpongeBob’s supporting castmates can monologue and flashback to meeting him as a child back at Camp Coral. This obviously serves as a backdoor introduction to the new Paramount+ show Kamp Koral — though the film spells the camp name with the standard letter C for some reason — and the sheer amount of shoehorning and retconning the movie has to do to shove in this digression is appallingly bold. Far be it from me to gripe about the breach of canon in the SpongeBob Squarepants extended universe, but the childhood backstories concocted to justify every character being personally inspired by SpongeBob’s goodness only serves to strip them of personal agency and interior life beyond their friendship to the title character, which is part of what made these deep-sea critters so loveable in the first place. More pressingly, though, it's just bad storytelling to pause the movie to run a commercial for your spin-off property, plain and simple.
As the film drags itself back to its climax and peters out into oblivion, it feels less like a coherent film than a collection of scenes cobbled together to make the convincing mirage of one. With the exception of its horrendous Kamp Koral advertising, it’s a mostly serviceable, occasionally funny cartoon comedy, but that one sequence early on is the only time it ever truly feels like a SpongeBob movie. There’s hope in this movie that the specific alchemy of SpongeBob can survive Stephen Hillenburg’s passing, but Sponge on the Run just can’t keep that energy going on its own.
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run is available on Paramount+ and PVOD (both Vudu and FandangoNOW). It's also available with the Paramount+ free trial.
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