Wednesday, November 17, 2004

In giving prominent screen time to “Baywatch” beefcake David Hasselhoff, “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” takes a stab — and only a stab — at chiseling off a chunk of adult viewers.

The cartoon’s feature debut feasts, for the most part, on broad humor meant to freeze short-attention-span children in their tracks. The Nickelodeon TV show that inspired the feature draws its share of older viewers, but that crowd won’t appreciate the movie’s illogical leaps or machine-like repetition of its best gags.

In making the transition from the original 10-minute shorts to the big screen, the series had to expand its storytelling range. The strain begins to show midfilm and only grows worse through the rest of its length.

SpongeBob, a witty creation voiced by comic Tom Kenny, lives in an undersea landscape with his starfish pal Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke of “Coach” TV fame), who steals the movie.

It’s just another day under the sea in the hamlet known as Bikini Bottom, but for SpongeBob it’s the moment when he learns who will be named manager of the new restaurant in town. Naturally for an underdog like SpongeBob, the job falls in someone else’s hands, but bigger problems are afoot.

The squirrelly Plankton (Doug Lawrence), in a power grab of Saddam-ish proportions, steals the crown of King Neptune (voiced with royal glee by Jeffrey Tambor) and tries to take over the underwater city. It’s up to SpongeBob and Patrick to retrieve the crown and restore order.

SpongeBob, with that banana nose and buck teeth big enough to chomp through a log, remains an endearing fellow even during the most inane spells. His comic timing, and that of his animated brethren, could teach a few sitcom stars a lesson or two.

“SpongeBob” creator Stephen Hillenburg, who directs the feature, falls back on familiar comedy tropes so often — like befuddled reaction shots by the principals — that it starts to erode the film’s sincerity.

The folksy animation doesn’t approach Disney standards, but its cleanliness makes for an arresting presentation all the same.

Midway through, SpongeBob announces that the quest will prove he’s not just a child, but a man capable of great things, a carrot tossed to young audiences as if the filmmakers remembered, “Hey, this is made for them, after all.”

The film earns its PG rating for, among other things, delighting in how silly animated buttocks can look and a clever set piece involving SpongeBob and Patrick on an ice cream bender. Given how crass many children’s programs can be, that level of irreverence hardly deserves a scolding.

“The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” will delight youthful fans, but we’ll have to leave it to Pixar and the folks behind “Shrek” to unite young and old moviegoers alike.


WHAT: “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie”

RATING: PG (Mildly coarse humor)

CREDITS: Produced and directed by Stephen Hillenburg. Based on a story and the series created by Mr. Hillenburg. Written and storyboarded by Derek Drymon, Tim Hill, Mr. Hillenburg, Kent Osborne, Aaron Springer and Paul Tibbitt.

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes



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