SpongeBob (voiced by Tom Kenny), the loveable, naïve fry cook from the Bikini Bottom, has lost a piece of himself: His pet sea snail, Gary, has been stolen by the vain King Poseidon (Matt Berry) for use in his obsessive skincare routine. Those who have reveled in countless episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants (or just have seen the first SpongeBob SquarePants Movie) may recall that the series already has a King Neptune. But I guess there’s plenty of room at the bottom of the sea for both the Greek and Roman gods. It’s not like this decades-spanning, multi-billion-dollar IP has ever put a premium on logic: The absurdity is a vital aspect of its cross-generational appeal.
And it seems that The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run could’ve used a little more of it. Considering that this is the third planned big-screen excursion for this absorbent cartoon protagonist, some fatigue of the hero’s journey formula seems inevitable. This time out there are, again, trippy sequences, a live-action segment, pop songs, and tongue-in-cheek celebrity cameos. The misadventures of SpongeBob and his pals and frenemies have be enough to sustain more than two-hundred episodes of television, but filling out a feature, even one that’s barely eighty minutes without credits, takes a lot of squeezing.
For anyone unfamiliar with the world, there’s, notably, a theme song. SpongeBob lives in a pineapple under the sea with Gary the snail. His best friend, Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), is a dimwitted sea star. He works as a fry cook at the Krusty Krab for the greedy Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown), whose nemesis, the petite Plankton (Mr. Lawrence), is obsessed with stealing the secret Krabby Patty formula. The irritable Squidward Tentacles (Roger Bumpass), who in actuality is an octopus, is SpongeBob’s neighbor and co-worker. And Sandy (Carolyn Lawrence), a squirrel scientist who walks around in a space suit and lives in an air dome, rounds out the core ensemble.
So when Gary quickly goes missing, SpongeBob and Patrick set off on to recuse him from King Poseidon’s Lost City of Atlantic City in a makeshift convertible driven by Otto (Awkwafina), a robot built by Sandy and reprogrammed by Plankton, who has come to realize that SpongeBob, not Mr. Krabs, is his true enemy. Altogether, that section of the plot amounts to just a little longer than the runtime of a single SpongeBob episode. Perhaps with a little imagination, something might’ve been made of the road trip format, but the only thing it produces is a diverting live-action sequence in which SpongeBob and Patrick find themselves in a dusty Western town full of “zombie cowboy-pirates” and Snoop Dogg, where they meet a wise tumbleweed (Keanu Reeves) and a demonic bandit outlaw named El Diablo (Danny Trejo).
There are some good laughs to had sprinkled throughout, but a lot of it feels like a movie treading water. The animation is for the most part straightforward, striking a balance between the plastic-looking digital modeling of the previous movie, Sponge Out of Water, and a more textured flat style. But there are far too many montages and musical numbers that seem to be searching for a punchline. Worst of all, the film often falls back on what has become the weakest symptom of contemporary IP exhaustion: Giving backstories to all the characters. Do we really need to know the psychological motivations of Squidward? The intentions of Sponge on the Run‘s writer-director, Tim Hill, who helped the late Stephen Hillenburg develop the original series, are likely well-meaning. But the end result mostly serves as a disheartening reminder that SpongeBob SquarePants, despite all the joys, is still treated by some as just a lucrative media franchise. The signature ebullient silliness of the series is seen in flashes, but Sponge on the Run ultimately sees the sponge squeezed dry with its formula fatigue.