“The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” takes on rather too much water during its extended feature-length submersion. Stephen Hillenburg’s enormously clever and appealing animated creation, which has been one of the Nickelodeon channel’s biggest hits since debuting in 1999, still possesses charm, as well as visual and musical appeal, on the bigscreen. But as with many short-form TV entities when sextupled in length, “SpongeBob” proves more palatable as scrumptious fast food than full-scale repast. Still, B.O. should prove absorbent with the target audience through Thanksgiving and slightly beyond, with much more in store down the line as a home entertainment staple.
Very popular with college students as well as with parents, the show featuring peppy SpongeBob, dufus starfish best friend Patrick and curmudgeonly neighbor Squidward has always brandished a hipster veneer, outre imagination and sharp design sense that make it by far the most whole-family-friendly Saturday morning cartoon. Another graduate, after John Lasseter and Brad Bird, of the CalArts animation program, Hillenburg also studied and worked in marine biology; these interests have merged and morphed producing a pop impressionistic take on underwater life inhabited by spirited and disarming characters.
Amusing live-action opening has a bunch of scruffy pirates singing the familiar “SpongeBob” title tune a la Gilbert and Sullivan in gleeful celebration of the discovery of movie ducats in a treasure chest: They hightail it to what looks like San Francisco’s late, lamented Surf Theater to take in the show.
At the outset, the tranquility of Bikini Bottom is disrupted by two untoward events. After a successful run flipping patties at the Krusty Krab, SpongeBob (voiced as always by Tom Kenny) is mortified to be bypassed for the job of manager of the new Krusty Krab 2 by cranky Squidward (Rodger Bumpass).
At the same time, scheming Plankton (Mr. Lawrence), proprietor of the dismally unsuccessful Chum Bucket eatery, contrives to steal the crown of King Neptune (Jeffrey Tambor) and convince the king that Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) was responsible, resulting in a death sentence for SpongeBob’s greedy encrusted boss.
With Neptune’s daughter Missy (Scarlett Johansson) imploring her angry dad to delay impaling Krabs on his trident and Plankton taking over Bikini Bottom by turning the population into bucket-helmeted automatons, SpongeBob and Patrick venture to deepest Shell City in search of the missing crown. Amid assorted skulls and monsters, they find their scariest nemesis in biker hit man Dennis (Alec Baldwin), and in the bargain achieve a measure of “manhood” and maturity, qualities that could have earned SpongeBob the managerial post in the first place.
While the journey is neither uneventful nor without humor, a certain tedium sets in that isn’t helped by uninspired set pieces such as an interlude in which a depressed SpongeBob and Patrick get “drunk” on ice cream at the Goofy Goober nightspot. Giving things a funny jolt, however, is a live-action comic climax in which a self-deprecating David Hasselhoff gives the intrepid heroes a ride on his back as he speeds them back home across the waves like a human surfboard, with a desperate Dennis in hot pursuit.