Patron Pick – The Spongebob Squarepants Movie

This special reward is available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 monthly levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.

The Spongebob Squarepants Movie (2004)
Written by Derek Drymon, Tim Hill, Stephen Hillenburg, Kent Osborne, Aaron Springer, and Paul Tibbitt
Directed by Stephen Hillenburg

I was a bit beyond its target audience when Spongebob Squarepants appeared on the scene. In 1999, I finished my senior year and started college. I won’t say I didn’t continue watching cartoons, we certainly did in college, but our viewing was focused more on things from our childhoods out of nostalgia or the now very cringingly edgy animated fare of Family Guy or Adult Swim (though AS did have some fantastic shows in those early years). Spongebob was undoubtedly a phenomenon I was aware of, but it just didn’t interest me enough to watch it. Growing up, cable television was something we watched at our grandparents’ house as we didn’t have it at home. So when I had my chance, I was more curious about things like The Sci-Fi Channel or Comedy Central. We had cable access in college, but I discovered Tech Tv, which was much more helpful. Many years later, I would finally watch a few episodes of Spongebob and definitely get it. He is the Pee-Wee Herman of the 21st Century.

Spongebob (Tom Kenny) is psyched for the grand opening of The Krusty Krab 2. He’s confident that Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) will name him as the manager for the new joint due to his years of loyal service. However, that honor gets handed to Squidward (Rodger Bumpass), who sends Spongebob spiraling into an ice cream sundae binge. When the sponge finally comes back to his senses, he discovers Mr. Krabs has been falsely accused of crown theft by King Neptune (Jeffrey Tambor). In actuality, Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) enacted his Plan Z to steal the secret formula for the ocean-famous krabby patties. So Spongebob and his sidekick Patrick Star (Bill Fagerbakke) embark on a road trip to the dangerous Shell City in their krabby patty-mobile. A series of misadventures and follies ensues.

As I said before, Spongebob is the Pee-Wee Herman archetype. He’s a manic man-child whose world reflects the cartoonish imagination in the character. Spongebob always seems to have a Rube Goldberg-styled device at the ready. He cannot handle even the most minor change in his life without an explosive emotional outburst, yet he can return to being centered at a whiplash pace. The very plot of this movie, minus it taking place underwater, could easily be adapted into a Pee-Wee story, and there’s certainly a lot of overlap with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. 

I don’t say this to claim the character is a rip-off; Spongebob has certainly outlasted Herman regarding cultural permanence and relevance. Instead, Spongebob is a continuation of a dramatic archetype. Paul Reubens, who plays Pee-Wee, has cited Pinky Lee, a 1950s children’s television show host, as his inspiration. Lee worked as a “baggy pants” performer in vaudeville, a performance type also beloved and made famous by Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin was inspired by dance hall performers from his own childhood. It’s the reciprocal nature of art; humans don’t often create original ideas whole cloth but take pieces from various sources to make their own thing. 

Your opinion of this film likely varies from my own based on your age. If you grew up with Spongebob, then you very well may adore this picture, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I definitely laughed a few times in the first half of the picture. However, as an adult whose tastes have changed over time and, more specifically, as someone who did not grow up with these characters, it was a tad exhausting as the film went on. The film clocks in at under 90 minutes, but it felt longer when I got into the back half of the picture. The humor is a mix of references to things in the show, whether character traits, locations, joke callbacks, etc. and a thunderous screamy kind of comedy. Spongebob has much in common with the original portrayal of Daffy Duck, who behaved like a complete lunatic. I always enjoyed that iteration of the characters versus the bitter, argumentative version that ended up sticking around. The Spongebob Squarepants Movie is throwing a lot at its audience, and the children are catching it much more readily than we adults.

I prefer movies based on properties made during their actual period of popularity rather than nostalgic cash grabs developed decades later. In my opinion, the Transformers Movie from 1986 will always be better than a single Michael Bay flick. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie (1990), while far from as polished as modern interpretations, works best because it was made amid the frenzied popularity of the franchise. I think the further away we get from modern media concept’s high marks, the less the creative people involved, and even many fans seem to understand what makes it unique. 

I don’t think the OG fans are always right; I think most of them are morons, but it is being a child and appreciating a character or a show where the magic comes from. What I loved from my childhood was how I felt about the things I enjoyed, and every time I revisited them as an adult, I saw the glaringly obvious flaws. You had such a sense of wonder and enjoyment over something as a kid because your worldview was limited in scope; simpler things meant more. In the face of a cold, cruel reality that fades, we scramble back, hoping that if we own the complete Thundercats boxed set on blu-ray, we will somehow feel at home again. That is never going to happen.

With creator Stephen Hillenberg dead, I would argue it’s time to shutter Spongebob and let what exists be. The hundreds of episodes and associated merchandise can be readily enjoyed for years. But we all know that isn’t what is going to happen. Look at every single popular franchise from the 1980s and 90s at the moment. We are living in an age where things cannot be allowed to stop because the enormous corporations that hold these IPs in their portfolio must constantly be trying to squeeze more money from them at every turn. Look at the debacle Warner Discovery has become where fresh, original animated shows are being pulled off HBOMax and warehoused. At the same time, they greenlight the embarrassingly tone-deaf Velma show. The mega-corps understand diversity is an element of what people want in media right now, but they can’t seem to do anything other than paint it onto recognizable names and IPs rather than give us something exciting and new. Do we need any more reboots of the Scooby-Doo concept now? I always hated that fucking show as a kid. 

The Spongebob Squarepants Movie was never made for me, so it doesn’t matter if I like it or not. I know my opinion is meant to be a part of these things, so: if you grew up with this cartoon series, you would love this movie. Before we left for the Netherlands, I got to have a beautiful experience. I watched my niece and nephew watch Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films for the first time. My nephew is obsessed with Spider-Man. He just turned nine, and one of the presents I sent him was The Spider-Man Character Encyclopedia. My sister has told me he doesn’t want to read anything else for the moment. Seeing those original Spider-Man movies through their eyes was a wonderful thing. They were shocked at moments I’ve become jaded towards; they laughed and found wonder in Peter Parker discovering his powers; they teared up when Aunt May expressed anger at Peter in the third film after learning what he said to Uncle Ben. Those kids felt those movies the way they were meant to be, and that’s something that you or I just can’t really do in the context of escapist entertainment. I’m okay with that because now I get to discover older films explicitly aimed at adult audiences that create a new type of wonder in me that causes me to examine myself in a way a child just simply cannot. It’s okay to grow up, and not everything is for everyone.


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