Poseidon willing, there’s still a place in the market for SpongeBob SquarePants. Which is, of course, not to suggest that the lack of tolerance so vehemently defended by Focus on the Family roughly a decade ago is even remotely vanquished. (It hardly is, especially when you expand your gaze beyond gay marriage.) Rather, the newest missive from the pineapple under the sea emerges from the deepening trench separating irony and sincerity in family films. In one corner, the likes of The Lego Movie, whiplash-quick and sure to serve as a primer on meta for tomorrow’s baby Barthes enthusiasts; in the other, the entirety of Pixar’s ilk, movies which practically slit their wrists, bleeding teal and orange, in order to show you their beating pulse. More than a decade and a half since its inception, Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants still defies categorization into either column, and even if Sponge Out of Water doesn’t scale the zany heights of either the TV show’s prime or its prior cinematic outing, its dedication to the transgressive power of frivolity—a deportment that marks its true gay card—remains the franchise’s greatest weapon.
Did someone say meta? The framing device of Sponge Out of Water literalizes the medium’s role as the message itself vis-à-vis a magical storybook that makes true anything written on its pages. The crewless pirate Burger-Beard (Antonio Bandaras, serving up B-list Captain Jack Sparrow) kicks the self-referential proceedings off as he swipes, Indiana Jones-style, the creaky, antiquated tome and tells a flock of seagulls the tale therein—a story about how the Krusty Krab’s secret Krabby Patty recipe vanishes into thin water during one of the diminutive Plankton’s elaborate heist attempts. Only Plankton and SpongeBob witness the scroll’s disappearance, and so the cheery yellow brick credulously suggests his nemesis join forces to track the recipe down, lest the entire neighborhood of Bikini Bottom plunge into post-apocalyptic chaos. (A running gag involves Plankton’s inability to vocalize the term “teamwork,” at one point emerging from his mouth as “time bomb.”)
Their quest takes them through a dazzling array of inventive set pieces, many introducing new styles of animation, as Plankton burrows into SpongeBob’s cotton-candy brain (and discovering a perverted sort of Candy Land as reimagined by Terry Gilliam), the two travel through time and space via some sort of sausage-powered photo booth, Jupiter smashes into Saturn when a bilingual dolphin takes a 10,000-year-overdue bathroom break, and all paths lead them to the ultimate den of iniquity: a smarmy beachfront food truck. The multiplex being at the moment Marvel’s world, in which we are all reluctantly obliged to live, SpongeBob and his allies end up flexing their superhero muscles to save Bikini Bottom from burger-starved oblivion. It’s a sop to current fashion that would be a bigger disappointment were it not for the series’s blessed lack of seriousness. As overblown as its final act seems, the details in the margins—in this case, the seagulls interrupting an 11th-hour musical number by singing “You’re making the movie too long”—help keep SpongeBob’s universe blissfully free from baggage.