One of the charms of SpongeBob SquarePants is that past a certain point, you know exactly what you’re getting. Like any good kids’ cartoon, it relies on bright colors and broad character traits, but this franchise in particular also has enough pop-culture references and cheeky stealth jokes to keep adults from getting bored. The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge On the Run is the third film in the series — which has spanned 13 TV seasons since 1999, and is even getting a new spin-off on Paramount Plus — and it’s an entertaining entry, though an unremarkable one. For a property that has seen some genuinely moving and hilarious highs, though, it probably should have been more.
In its opening scenes, SpongeBob’s third cinematic outing (and his first that’s entirely CG-animated) seems to promise a story about the young, sprightly fry cook’s relationship with his pet snail Gary, a distinctly feline creature who speaks in disarming “meows.” The film lingers, for a moment, on the fact that Gary feels abandoned and lonely once his owner heads to work, but it’s an idea the story doesn’t really return to, even after Gary goes missing, and SpongeBob must find a way to track him down and bring him home.
The usual supporting characters get involved at various points, from SpongeBob’s curmudgeonly octopus neighbor Squidward to his avaricious crustacean boss Mr. Krabs and his friend Sandy Cheeks — an industrious, karate-loving squirrel in a space suit. But the plot largely comes down to yet another evil scheme by the diminutive, one-eyed Plankton, Krabs’ business rival, who hopes to steal the secret formula to the coveted Krabby Patty, the undersea burger SpongeBob prepares with care and glee. Plankton’s plan involves getting SpongeBob out of the way by kidnapping Gary and having him sent to The Lost City of Atlantic City (no explanation required), and as always, SpongeBob is joined on his road quest by his trusty-but-doltish best friend, Patrick Star.
Like the two films before it, Sponge On the Run sends SpongeBob on a mission outside his comfort zone and far from his hometown of Bikini Bottom. Again, the scope of a film gives him a chance at an adventure more challenging and grandiose than those seen on TV — think of the relationship between classic Star Trek films and shows. But even though the movie recycles the setup of a wildly popular SpongeBob TV episode (2005’s “Have You Seen This Snail?”, which had a massive audience of almost 8 million), the film sidelines the heart and sincerity that defined not only those early seasons of the show, but the infinitely rewatchable 2004 film The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, and the blast of creative optimism that was the recent Broadway musical.
However, the zany concepts and celebrity cameos it centers instead are bizarre enough (and metatextual enough) to be enjoyable in their own right. For instance, Keanu Reeves joins the cast as a wise old sage named Sage, who also happens to be made out of sage sticks — essentially, Reeves’ live-action head composited within a glowing tumbleweed. (“Sage out!” he exclaims, rolling out of frame after delivering spiritual advice.) There’s also a live-action cowboy-pirate-zombie musical number starring Danny Trejo and Snoop Dogg, which sounds like a random non sequitur, because it absolutely is one.
A whole lot of this film seems to take place in a live-action dream about the Old West, for no other reason than to shove SpongeBob and Patrick into weird scenarios en route to their destination. On one hand, this “throw everything at the wall without rhyme or reason” edict shouldn’t matter much, in a story of a talking bath sponge driving to an underwater casino town to retrieve his pet mollusk. On the other hand, this narrative approach, coupled with the decision to use only live action and CGI instead of the show’s usual 2D animation, makes the film feel like a hallucination, rather than a tale of a cheerful, naïve young character forced out into a world that doesn’t share his optimism.
The show’s old episodes only ever used live action for the surface world, and it wasn’t until the 2015 film Sponge Out of Water that the characters were animated with CG (and only when they ventured onto land). But here, the reliance on CG does the characters and their world a disservice. Giving these undersea creatures a realistic texture, as opposite to hand-drawn anthropomorphized details, plunges the film into uncanny territory. It’s ugly to look at. The colors are all noticeably darker than the cartoon, and SpongeBob’s “pores” even have a green tinge, which makes them look moldy and infected. This is especially strange for a series that sometimes used stark and “realistic” animated panels — often dubbed “gross-ups” — to create moments of disgust and discomfort, given their jarring contrast to the otherwise pleasant hand-drawn elements.
But in spite of its aesthetic oddities, the third film is still an improvement over its hand-drawn/CG-hybrid predecessor. It’s significantly funnier and livelier, in large part due to the unapologetically bouncy dynamic between SpongeBob and Patrick. (Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke belong in the proverbial Voice Acting Hall of Fame.) This time, they’re also joined by a brand-new character, Otto the scrap robot (Awkwafina), whose dry, monotonous responses make the duo’s boisterous energy feel all the more childlike. Otto fits instantly into the series’ now two-decade-old canon, since he’s built by Sandy, adopted by Plankton and his computer-wife Karen, and eventually becomes SpongeBob and Patrick’s chauffeur on their journey to The Lost City of Atlantic City.
Also joining the cast is Matt Berry (FX’s What We Do In the Shadows) as the delightfully conceited King Poseidon, the Greek deity who rules over the Lost City and uses snail slime in his rejuvenating skin routine. (Which is why Gary ends up in his possession.) Poseidon’s presence makes for a particularly funny expansion to the SpongeBob canon, for those who pay attention to such things. His Roman equivalent, King Neptune, happens to be a separate character in the first film, and The Lost City of Atlantic City is also entirely distinct from The Lost City of Atlantis, which appears in a 2007 episode, and is ruled over by the David Bowie-voiced Lord Royal Highness.
While Sponge On the Run plays fast and loose with the series’ continuity, it also feels like the series finally falling victim to shared-universe concerns. After lampshading the possibility of conflict between Patrick and SpongeBob — a theme that’s worked well in the past, though it’s sidestepped here — the film sprints toward a finale where the ensemble’s present relationships and dynamics don’t really matter, even though they’re all forced into difficult scenarios together. The dynamic between SpongeBob and Gary matters even less. Rather than SpongeBob having to prove he’s a worthy person, or a worthy owner and friend to Gary, the film instead switches gears and offers extended flashbacks where all the other characters recount childhood incidents to prove SpongeBob’s worth to them. These flashbacks all take place at a summer camp called Camp Coral, which is also the premise for the young viewers’ prequel series Kamp Koral: SpongeBob’s Under Years, arriving alongside the film on Paramount Plus.
The film spells the camp’s name differently, and a few other details differ too. (Squidward, for instance, is a counselor on the show, but a fellow camper in the movie.) But the setting is largely the same. The show was announced just a few weeks after Sponge On the Run went into production, and the film’s final act can’t help but feel like a backdoor pilot, rather than a resolution to its own story.
What’s more, the film features a couple of concluding beats that feel especially ugly for a children’s property — chief among them a speech about unconditional acceptance being followed swiftly by a joke fat-shaming one of the new characters. It’s surprisingly low-effort comedy in a franchise that, despite being silly from the get-go, has always tended toward a light-hearted, positive attitude, and love for its characters. Sponge On the Run is also the first time SpongeBob has been referred to as a savant — the cast has even spoken about the character’s appeal to autistic children — but the jab isn’t exactly in the nicest spirit.
This low-effort M.O. for some of its comedy also extends to its musical sequences, which play like YouTube parodies someone came up with overnight. Some of them are fun, but they’re a far cry from the franchise’s once-sincere approach to even satirical musical numbers: The first film’s Twisted Sister send-up “I’m A Goofy Goober” was a narrative culmination, and the show’s cover of David Glen Eisley’s “Sweet Victory” even made it to the Superbowl.
Still, if what you seek in a SpongeBob story is sight gags and high-energy antics, there’s absolutely no dearth of those. The film packs a whole lot into its mere 91 minutes — cutting out any narrative connective tissue certainly helps it move quickly. And for everything that doesn’t quite work, there’s something right beside it that does. While this movie may feel like a Simpsons-esque case of a series failing to recapture lost grandeur, the result is still mile-a-minute fun if you can keep past expectations out of sight and out of mind. Or… you could just watch the first film again.