Here’s a vintage Spongebob moment, the kind that makes some of us who are years past the demo feel like we can’t get enough of him. In “The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run,” our hero, voiced in that Daffy-Duck-on-happy-pills way by Tom Kenny, discovers that Gary, his cherished pet snail, has been snailnapped. (He’s been taken to the vain and preening tyrant King Poseidon, who uses snail slime for skin treatments.) For a moment, Spongebob lapses into a weepy nostalgic reverie, flashing back to Camp Coral, where he first encountered Gary as a little kid. It’s all very sweet (“I loved you since the first day we met,” says Spongebob). Then he comes out of the memory and, sitting back on his haunches, his face turned to the heavens, he bawls so hard that the tears shoot out of his eyes like twin geysers. That moment, which turns sentiment to sheer mockery and then back again, could have been staged by Chuck Jones. But it’s pure Spongebob.
The characters in “Sponge on the Run” say what they mean, nudging their thoughts to acerbic extremes (“This is about friends! And friends don’t let friends become somebody else’s face cream!”), only to snap back to their (mostly) amiable selves. And the speed, the snark rhythm of it all, is everything.
A decade ago, the media jumped all over a 2011 study in Pediatrics magazine that found that 4-year-olds, just after watching a fast-break episode of “Spongebob Squarepants,” did worse on tests of attention and problem-solving than kids who watched a slower-paced program. My first reaction to that study was: Who would show “Spongebob Squarepants” to a 4-year-old? It was designed for an older bracket (starting at 6), and those numbers mean something. The study had other weaknesses (maybe you shouldn’t take a test when your brain is still buzzing from a hyperactive cartoon), but the concern at its heart was still one that any parent, including this one, might have shared: How is an entertainment world of lickety-split, spit-in-your-eye cartoon comedy going to affect kids’ brains?
The manic pinwheel mode of children’s entertainment is everywhere now. It took off with “Spongebob” (and the rise of Cartoon Network), and you can see it in shows like “The Loud House,” “Big City Greens,” and the great “Apple & Onion.” The “Lego” movies totally have that caffeinated pace and Mad-magazine-for-preteens sarcastic snap. I tend to go with the hunch that these shows are helping to prepare kids for a world that increasingly moves at the speed of thought. That may be a wish more than a proven reality, but the rhythms of “Spongebob” are so familiar they seem downright tame now. “The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run” is a capricious and touching surrealist kiddie ride that, in its sugar-high way, is as much a celebration of friendship as the “Toy Story” films.
Written and directed by Tim Hill, gamely carrying on the legacy of “Spongebob” creator Stephen Hillenberg (who died in 2018 and carries an executive producer credit on the film, which is dedicated to him), this is the first “Spongebob” movie made entirely with CGI, and the film’s sculptured and tactile art-directed quality, which recalls the look of “Ratatouille,” works terrifically well. It stays true to the sketchy spirit of the cartoon even as it injects it with a new visual appeal.
For a while, “Sponge on the Run” is a buddy movie in which Spongebob and his love-hate doofus pal, Patrick Star (Bill Fagerbakke), jump into a vehicle driven by Otto (Awkwafina), a robot made of copper plumbing, ancient light bulbs, rubber gloves, and pipe cleaners who’s like Wall-E as a programmed efficiency expert (the robot keeps firing people). Speeding their way from Bikini Bottom to the Lost City of Atlantic City, an overlit Vegas-as-Oz, they infiltrate King Poseidon’s gambling palace and attempt to rescue Gary. It’s a simple plot, but the movie vaults over the humdrum wheel-spinning quality that has come to define too much studio animation. Passing through an Old West town, Spongebob and Patrick meet a guru-savior named Sage — played by Keanu Reeves’s head lodged inside a tumbleweed. You can tell Reeves is having a blast, as his every re-appearance gets funnier.
There are wry conceptual jokes, like a scene that opens on Spongebob and Partick locked in a dungeon, the suspense mood set by an ominous low musical tone, which turns out to be a note Patrick is hitting on an electric piano. There’s a saloon full of pirate cowboy zombies, which gives way to an undead hip-hop musical number presided over by Snoop Dogg. And in the Lost City of Atlantic City, “Sponge on the Run” turns into what has to be the first cartoon in history that readies itself for a live onstage execution. It’s all done for the diversion of Poseidon, a silky-green-skinned narcissist voiced with delectable unctuousness by Matt Berry.
At the trial, Spongebob’s pals all testify to the power of his friendship, even the curmudgeonly Squidward Tentacles (“I love him, and I hate him. He’s like ice cream with salt on it. He’s sweet, and super-annoying”), and the film hits an infectious note of skewed camaraderie in the climactic musical number “Secret to the Formula” (it’s about a burger recipe, but the key line is, “The secret to the formula is you!”). Our heroes aren’t out of the woods yet, though. The best moment of their escape comes when Patrick, enthralled by the prospect of free food, keeps stuffing his mouth with chicken drumsticks as he’s screaming in fear at the guards running toward him. Is “Sponge on the Run” a hale and hearty ride for kids? If not, it’s hard to think of anything that would be.