Hip to Be Square 

There's nothing absurd about the appeal of SpongeBob's first movie.

At the bottom of the ocean, inside a giant pineapple, lives a yellow, oblong sponge who likes to blow bubbles, eat more ice cream than is good for him, and work as a fry cook. The "Krabby Patty" sandwiches he makes are so popular that a one-eyed plankton, who runs a failed restaurant across the way, regularly comes up with evil schemes to steal the recipe and thereby, he imagines, rule the world.

And they say there's no creativity left in Hollywood.

If you've been watching Nickelodeon the last couple of years, none of this is news, and you probably don't need to hear any reviewer's opinion of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie; more likely you've already purchased advance tickets. But those whose hackles are instantly raised at the mere mention of Nickelodeon need to take a chill pill. SpongeBob is no mere Ren & Stimpy gross-out or repetitive one-joke Rugrats. You're as likely to find SpongeBob merchandise at Hot Topic as at Target; though the intended audience is children, many teens and adults are fans, including the members of Metallica, who appeared on a rather unique SpongeBob T-shirt earlier this year (and Motörhead and Ween are among the rockers who appear on the soundtrack).

Unlike many other TV cartoons-turned-features, there's no noticeable CG enhancement here. There is a rousing live-action intro in which a motley band of pirates sing the TV theme song, rush into a movie theater, and trash the place before settling down to watch the adventures of SpongeBob (voiced, as always, by Tom Kenny). There are also live-action elements in the climax, which, along with a certain notable celebrity cameo, has unfortunately been somewhat spoiled by the marketing machine. So yes, by now you all know David Hasselhoff is in the movie, kinda-sorta playing himself, but just wait until you see exactly how he makes his impact on the plot -- it's no stretch to call this his greatest performance ever.

Having exhausted evil plans A through Y, the megalomaniacal Plankton (Doug Lawrence), whose "Chum Bucket" restaurant has never had a single customer, discovers that there's one more letter in the alphabet than he had initially realized, and thus moves on to Plan Z. This involves stealing the crown of King Neptune (Jeffrey Tambor) and placing the blame on SpongeBob's boss, Eugene Krabs (Clancy Brown). Neptune, incensed that he no longer has anything with which to cover his bald spot, turns Krabs into an ice statue and gives SpongeBob six days to locate the stolen crown and bring it back. With Krabs paralyzed, and SpongeBob and his rock-brained sidekick Patrick Star (Bill Fagerbakke) out of the picture, Plankton is free to steal the Krabby Patty recipe, turn the Chum Bucket into a popular eatery, and hand out free bucket helmets that have the power to brainwash the wearer.

Scarlett Johansson is in this movie too, sounding less hoarse than usual as Neptune's mermaid daughter, who secretly aids SpongeBob and Patrick. It's a good thing for them, because Alec Baldwin is hot on their tail, or, more precisely, an Alec Baldwin-voiced biker named Dennis, who seems inspired by Randall "Tex" Cobb's character in Raising Arizona. Yes, unlike in other kiddie flicks, the references to outside material are extremely subtle and few -- in addition to the biker, there's a possible Monty Python nod, two cribs from The Odyssey, and a Twisted Sister parody, none of which children are likely to get, and only the sharpest of parents will appreciate.

One of the major strengths of the SpongeBob cartoon has always been creator Stephen Hillenburg, a real-life marine biologist who clearly relishes the opportunity to use his scholarly knowledge of sea creatures and spoof it at the same time. There's an anglerfish gag in the movie, for instance, that trumps even a similar scene in Finding Nemo, by taking a natural characteristic and magnifying it to absurd extremes.

SpongeBob's other major strength, and the central theme of the movie, is the pure joy the cartoon takes in childishness, a message that will resonate with kids in the audience. And by childishness, we're not talking grossness or bathroom humor, but the ability to be spontaneous, to find total bliss in an ice cream sundae, and to not be ashamed of loving goofy cartoons.

Of course, if you're watching the flick, you've already taken that lesson to heart.

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