REVIEW: “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run”

Everyone’s favorite resident of a certain deep-sea pineapple is back in his first big-screen adventure since the untimely passing of SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg, who succumbed to ALS in 2018. Hillenburg’s absence is felt rather keenly in “Sponge on the Run,” which was written and directed by frequent “Bob” scribe Tim Hill, as a certain magic is absent in our yellow friend’s third big-screen adventure—bowing not in theaters but on Paramount+ because of the current global pandemic.

To even describe a SpongeBob adventure is a bit like trying to explain a magic trick you never saw: Much is lost in the translation. The show and the movies bank on spontaneity—on being there. Alas, we cannot be together in theaters at present, which may explain part of what feels lacking in “Sponge on the Run.” But as a longtime, unapologetic fan, I was hopeful.

To be sure, the gang’s all here, with the able-“bodied” voices of Tom Kenny (SpongeBob), Bill Fagerbakke (Patrick Starr), Rodger Bumpass (Squidward) et al., who pour their usual hyper-optimism into their animated avatars. The animation is snazzier than ever, and thus one might reasonably hope the stakes would be higher for this latest adventure.

Rather, we are treated to a plot pushed in motion thanks to the uber-vain Poseidon (voiced by Matt Berry), whose stay-young scheme involves applying a steady stream of sea snail slime to his kisser. Recall that SpongeBob has a pet snail named Gary, who before long is smuggled to Poseidon courtesy of the series’ perpetual villain, Plankton (Mr. Lawrence). With SpongeBob off to rescue Gary, there’s of course no one to cook burgers back at the Krusty Krab, and thus Plankton at long last can become king of the fast food empire 20,000 leagues below.

Just go with it. It’s always best with this animated fun to not ask too many questions, especially if we’re laughing.

And that’s the problem this time around. “Sponge on the Run” lacks the humor of the original film from 2004 and the creativity of the 2015 sequel. It’s moment-to-joke ratio is far below even a mediocre episode of the show. And as far as storytelling, it’s evident the filmmakers haven’t gotten much new to dazzle us with. As in the first film, there’s yet another road trip and, as before, there’re cameos a-plenty, including Snoop Dogg and Danny Trejo, but the best pop-in by far is by Keanu Reeves as a wise old sagebrush called, yep, Sage. Reeves clearly has fun nodding to his recent, inexplicable run as Hollywood’s doler of wisdom, and the film is at its best when he is there to play stoner Yoda for SpongeBob and Patrick.

There are a few OK-size laughs, but not the constant-chuckle inanity we’ve become used to from this crew. Nearly half of the on-the-road adventure (to the one-joke “Lost City of Atlantic City”) involves a courtroom showdown—Perry Mason for the deeps. Sure, there are non sequiturs and absurdist cutaways as on the show and the previous films, but not enough to keep us from getting bored.

Even Plankton, unbelieving that he has finally vanquished his arch-nemesis Eugene Krabs (Clancy Brown), shrugs and joins in with the rest of the good guys to rescue SpongeBob and Patrick, who have clearly failed on their own rescue mission to save Gary. When even your main villain has nothing better to do than join the good guys, you’re in trouble. Thus it goes.

Sigh. I’ve loved this franchise for so many years, as it has constantly appealed to my inner five-year-old with its lovable silliness and playful anarchy. It’s great to see the franchise continue and the ever-optimistic Sponge & Co. up to their fun old tricks, but a certain magic isn’t here this time around. How much of this is due to the creator’s absence is up for debate, and certainly the adventures will continue. But hopefully, next time, they’ll be able to do the late Stephen Hillenburg more proudly.

“The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” is currently available for streaming on Paramount+.