There has always been an archly hallucinogenic element to Spongebob Squarepants. I don’t mean the conceit of a sentient aggregate life form living in a pineapple under the sea. No, Spongebob has used it to tackle the existential from time to time while also being deliciously silly and being unapologetically full of heart. One need look no further than the Halloween episode in which a stick figure he draws of himself comes to life with murderous intent. In SPONGE ON THE RUN, things get weird during a road trip that makes a detour onto dry land as we catch up the characters created by the late, great Steven Hillenburg.
The animation is different, though, Instead of the simple line drawings of the original, we’ve moved into computer generated figures with volume and more detail. The distraction is fleeting as Bikini Bottom’s most enthusiastic fry cook, Spongebob Squarepants (Tom Kenny) falls prey to the evil, but inept, Plankton’s (Mr. Lawrence) latest nefarious plot to steal the secret Krabby Patty formula from Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown). The 3,087th attempt, for those keeping count. Spongebob becomes the center of the plot when Plankton’s computer wife, Karen (Jill Talley), points out that the Krusty Krab’s fry cook was always the one to foil Plakton’s previous 1,086 attempts.
The perfect opportunity to get the sponge out of the way arises when Poseidon (Matt Berry), the vainglorious and dangerous king of the Lost City of Atlantic City, runs out of the snails that he requires to keep his complexion dewy and youthful. This prompts Plankton to snail nap Gary, Spongebob’s beloved pet, as a royal gift, knowing that Mr. Squarepants will drop everything to retrieve his snail. Plankton even thoughtfully provides him with a self-driving car to aid in the trip to Atlantic City with his dim but faithful pal, Patrick Star (Bill Fagerbakke) by his side.
One of the nice things about the franchise is that it doesn’t shy away from using big words and even bigger concepts while being aimed primarily at the under 10 crowd. The kiddies may not understand that Spongebob and Patrick are dissecting the tropes of a buddy picture versus a hero’s journey as they set off on their journey, but they will enjoy the exchange that ends in rocks and sand, literal and figurative, filling the characters’ heads. As for the word “fecundity” that is included in the opening narration, it sounds funny, and if one or two pre-teens choose to look it up on their electronic devices, all the better.
The trek to Atlantic City includes a dream sequence involving that ci-mentioned desert, the Inferno Saloon infested with zombie pirates, and Danny Trejo as, what else, El Diablo. Boldly mixing live-action and animation adds to the cognitive dissonance, which makes sense when Sage (Keanu Reeves), the metaphysically sophisticated tumbleweed with Reeves’ head inside it, explains what is going on before handing them the courage token that will give them the strength to carry on. Strength they will need with the bright lights and iniquitous diversion of Atlantic City. Even Sage loses his cool as the invertebrate pair fall prey to the bright lights and flashy entertainments on offer. In a puckish bit of business, Reeves tilts and rolls his very live-action head in order to make the tumbleweed move.
THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE ON THE RUN takes some fine jabs at automation, greed, and the pomposity of some leaders with more style than substance. Yet it never feels preachy as it whirls to a conclusion that is not a surprise but is a delight. Along the way, we discover the Window of Meanwhile, the sentimental side of Karen, and why the quest is as important as the journey. We also get the origin story of the Bikini Bottom denizens with how they all met as kids at Kamp Koral, which, by the way, is the new series, subtitled The Under Years, launching March 4 on Paramount +.