Some years ago, I began a review of 2015's The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water by noting that it was the first piece of media in the SpongeBob SquarePants universe that I had ever encountered. Flash-forward to 2021 and I shall begin my review of The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run much the same way: this is now the second piece of SpongeBob-related media that I have ever encountered. I say this for much the same reason I said it then: I know that the people who hold this franchise close to their heart have extremely strong opinions about it, and I would not like for anyone to waste any amount of time laboring under the misapprehension that I know what the hell I'm talking about. A Real Fan of the series might very well have a different response to Sponge on the Run than I do (and, based on my very unscientific and unsystematic rifling through social media, that response would appear to be more negative), but all I'm good for is to honestly and accurately report my own response to the movie. So with the homework cleared out, let's move on.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run is the third theatrical feature in this series, and the third different specific medium. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, from 2004, was traditionally animated, just like the widely-adored Nickelodeon cartoon series; Sponge Out of Water spent most of its first two-thirds in traditional animation before moving to live-action but with the characters rendered as CGI figures interacting with the human world. Sponge on the Run is entirely CGI, except for one scene that's a live-action hybrid, and one live-action character who keeps popping up throughout the story. But it's also not the same CGI as in Sponge Out of Water. The character models are slightly different: a little more distinctly unreal", rather than feeling like they've been textured to exist in the real world, with real-world lighting (and indeed, when that one-live action scene occurs, the effect is noticeably different: more Roger Rabbit, less Gollum, if you will). And even more importantly than that, they character animation has followed the lead of an increasing number of animated features that try to recapture the characteristic jerkiness of hand-made animation by halving the number of frames, so we only get 12 frames per second of movement, rather than 24.

This is a very good impulse. There's something horrible that can happen when characters designed to be seen as flat drawings are transposed into 3-D animation; angles that weren't supposed to be there are visible, volume that was supposed to be communicated through squash-and-stretch rather than actual, well,v volume suddenly doesn't seem to move right, solid blocks of color are replaced by slightly horrible too-real textures. Sponge on the Run avoids this, preserving the essential nature of these characters as line drawings basically by "breaking" the computer animation program: the reduced frame-rate is part of this, as is going in and mucking with the in-between frames (the connecting tissue between different poses) so the characters "snap" into place abruptly rather than flow smoothly. These are things that animation software is specifically designed not to do, and Sponge on the Run comes as part of a growing trend of movies trying to take advantage of the labor-saving aspects of computer animation while preserving some of the appealing unreality of classical animation (see, for instance, 2016's Trolls, or 2018's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse). The SpongeBob ensemble is particularly well-designed for taking advantage of these broad gestures of comic animation, and finding a way to maintain that even while inflating them into three dimensions is all it takes for Sponge on the Run to earn my respect.

The great pity, then, is that this impressive feat of animation, one that never bends over backwards trying to show off, but simply is, as the right way to bring these characters to life, is married to a pretty underwhelming, undercooked screenplay. The story is sturdy enough: Poseidon (Matt Berry), king of Atlantis, needs sea snails to complete his skin regimen, but he's used up all of them in his kingdom. So he puts out a call that reaches as far as the underwater town of Bikini Bottom, where the villainous Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) has finally been convinced by his sentient computer friend Karen (Jill Talley) that his plans to take over the Krusty Krab restaurant will never work unless he finds a way to remove that restraurant's linecook, SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) from the scene entirely. So he kidnaps SpongeBob's snail Gary and sends him off to Atlantis, whereupon SpongeBob, his sea star friend Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), and the treacherous, insane robot Otto (Awkwafina) go on a road trip to find him. When SpongeBob's absence threatens the entire balance of life in Bikini Bottom, the series regulars all group together to go rescue him from Poseidon's clutches.

This is by absolutely no stretch of the imagination a "story" movie, though. As I gather is typical of the show - as was certainly typical of Sponge Out of Water - Sponge on the Run is mostly made up of whatever absurd comic asides the creative team feels bold enough to throw out, the more random the better. And that's fine, but there's a difference between actually being effectively absurd and running around saying "hooooly shit, are you ready for how absurd I am?" and Sponge on the Run isn't great at staying on the right side of that line. Writer-director Tim Hill is a longstanding veteran of the SpongeBob SquarePants show, but he's also the man who directed Muppets from Space, Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Hop. He has a definite strength; the problem is that his strength is making the kind of braying, witless "comedy" for children that assumes children are disgusting little trolls who should be punished, and who thinks that pop culture references are in and of themselves hilarious. Sponge on the Run is at least as good as anything on that list,* if only because some of the absurdity does land the way it's supposed to. But some of it doesn't, and even then, the good honest absurdity has to share a lot of space with aggressive celebrity cameos (Keanu Reeves, at his most "human meme", is gamely subjected to some pretty bad writing, but better what happens to him than Tiffany Haddish, who has to deliver the line "I'm Tiffany Haddock" and preserve some kernel of her dignity, or Snoop Dogg, whose appearance completely overwhelms a joke that was just barely hanging on in the first place), and strangely dated pop culture references, including several needle drops that are so extravagantly behind-the-times that I'm fairly certain the film must intend for them to be taken ironically. The irony certainly fails to land.

The result feels less like an inspired, dangerous visit to honest-to-God comic anarchy, and more like a bunch of terrible children's movie clichés were shaken out onto the floor and filmed in the order they fell. And even this is still more appealing (since it does sometimes strike a real absurdist note) than what happens when the film reaches its third act and turns into a parody of a courtroom drama. One at a time, the characters show up to offer their praise of SpongeBob's character, in the form of a flashback to the time they were all at summer camp together as children, and even without knowing until afterwards that this is literally serving as the backdoor pilot for a Paramount+ series in which SpongeBob and everybody are kids at summer camp, this at best feels like a long-form ad for toys based on the new child form of the characters. And whatever heinous intertextual crimes it's committing, it certainly manages to slaughter the film's narrative moment, just stakes it right in the heart and leaves it there to die. The film isn't painful, it still has enough individual jokes that work, and the cast is boundlessly energetic, but the further it goes along, the harder it is to pretend this is anything but a soulless brand deposit, and the mere fact that not everybody involved was entirely cynical about that fact does very little to make it more palatable.

*Apologies if you like Muppets from Space: I am, truly, sorry that you have such shitty taste in Muppet movies.