So obviously I have no shame in admitting that I’ll give any animated movie a try within reason, especially ones with ties to my own childhood. SpongeBob SquarePants was a staple of my youth and I even saw the original theatrical film from 2004 on the big screen. Years later the little square dude is still going strong as Nickelodeon’s de facto mascot. It appears the studio is going all-in with their SpongeBob branding too with multiple spinoff shows being created to milk whatever relevance is left out of the property. Nickelodeon also produced a new movie too, this time ditching the traditional animation style in favor of CGI similar to the first series spinoff “Kamp Koral”. Released through Paramount+ in the United States, “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” was actually released theatrically in Canada in late 2020 and on Netflix outside the United States last November before finally hitting U.S. screens this year after several delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The movie follows SpongeBob and friends as they try to rescue Gary the Snail after he is kidnapped by Plankton and sold to Poseidon. It will probably sit well with fans of the series, but as a standalone movie it’s kind of middle of the road for me, especially since it feels like it has a much different agenda than just entertaining you with a self-contained story.
“Sponge on the Run” sports a lot of the personality one might expect from a SpongeBob movie. It’s quirky, energetic, at times completely random and brings back the voice cast we’ve come to know and love. It also brings in director Tim Hill who is well known for his family-friendly fair like “Muppets in Space”, “Alvin and the Chipmunks”, “Hop”, and Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties”. He also wrote the first “SpongeBob” movie from 2004. Having had the displeasure of seeing many of Hill’s movies I’d say “Sponge on the Run” is probably his second-best directorial effort behind only “Muppets from Space” which is a classic in my eyes. Hill and the cast do a fine job capturing the spirit of SpongeBob and his friends as well as bringing Bikini Bottom to life in a way we had never seen before, in fully realized and eye-catching computer animation. While the film maintains the series’ trademark humor, the visual style is truly what brings you into this world and while SpongeBob will always be seen as a staple of traditional animation from the 2000s seeing these characters realized in a new way truly makes this feel like a special cinematic event rather than just a feature length “SpongeBob” episode. Or at least it would if it didn’t feel like there was a hidden agenda behind it all and I’m not talking about politics here but we’ll get to that.
When you get to the story honestly this is where things start to go down hill for me. It might seem stupid for me to nitpick the narrative of a SpongeBob movie made for kids but humor me. The narrative of this film contains so many inconsistencies with the series and borrowed elements from past SpongeBob episodes and movies that it lacks a lot of originality. Gary going missing is a story beat we saw on the show itself, although there he ran away and here he is kidnapped. Poseidon is basically a replacement for Neptune from the series and first movie so using him as an antagonist feels extremely repetitive. There’s also a lot of filler in this film including a completely out of nowhere dream sequence where SpongeBob and Patrick battle a band of zombie pirates which doesn’t really go anywhere at all other than providing for some awesome cameos by Danny Trejo and Keanu Reeves who completely steals this movie as a tumbleweed “sage”. In fact, there are numerous fun cameos in this film which serve as rare saving graces in the randomness of it all. Then there’s the flashback sequences which are meant to introduce us to how SpongeBob met all his friends…even though there are literally several episodes at the start of the first season that show how SpongeBob meets Mr. Krabs and Sandy Cheeks. I mean, I probably shouldn’t expect continuity from a show like this, but still retconning is retconning.
These flashback sequences actually lead into my biggest gripe with this movie. As fun and colorful and energetic as the experience is it all adds up to a glorified advertisement for “Kamp Koral”, the Paramount+ spinoff prequel series. As previously noted, the movie often diverts to flashbacks of SpongeBob’s time at camp including showing us how he met Gary before almost every other major character spend half of the final 30 minutes recalling their own meetings of SpongeBob at camp. While this would have been a fine add on if it was confined to the film, it makes the movie feel like a feature length bridge between the series and the new show and even makes the animation style feel gimmicky as the computer animation is meant to emulate the style of “Kamp Koral”. I can’t lie, this movie is a lot of fun if you’re a SpongeBob fan but at times it feels manipulative trying to draw you in to the new show rather than tell a self-contained story like the first two films did. This approach can work. Hell, we’ve dealt with it for over ten years from Marvel. But it requires a certain amount of subtlety and respect for the viewer and when you’ve already released two movies and shown you’re willing to create films that stand on their own and then you change lanes by making the third movie an advertisement for a new show, that just didn’t sit well with me and took me out of a movie that, quite honestly, wasn’t even made for me, but still I’m the reviewer and these are my thoughts. I could also go into how this is a betrayal of the legacy of the show’s creator, the late Stephen Hillenburg who gets a heartwarming tribute right before the credits, but I’ll let the fanbase do that for me. I’m not here to debate Nickelodeon’s ethics, I’m here to give my thoughts of this film.
“The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” is a lot of fun especially if you’re a longtime fan of the series. It’s far from the best movie based on the titular character, that honor remains with the 2004 release, but it has its own moments and the blend of adult humor and childish jokes, fun performances from both the families cast and memorable guest stars, and its commitment to the spirit of the show are enough for me to recommend it. What brings it down for me is that the artistic choices, story decisions and even the central conflict feel designed to sell you the new series rather than provide a truly self-contained SpongeBob adventure. It does end up feeling like a feature-length advertisement which can leave viewers feeling used by the time it’s done. All that said, this is a SpongeBob movie made for kids after all. I’m not the target audience and maybe after years of being on the air it’s about time that SpongeBob be tweaked to serve a new generation. The visuals bring it into the modern age and while I didn’t enjoy feeling used I still had a lot of fun watching it and it did remind me of why I enjoyed this little square dude and his band of friends when I was young. I still recommend it, especially if you have kids you want to continue the SpongeBob tradition with, but as a movie on its own “Sponge on the Run” doesn’t quite live up to my personal, albeit lofty, expectations.