As far as nautical nonsense goes, it’s hard to top the climax of 2004’s “The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie,” in which the fate of our heroes hinged on the density of David Hasselhoff’s leg hair. This year’s follow-up, “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water,” may not quite equal those heights, but by doubling down on the Nickelodeon series’ inherent surreality, it proves just as memorable. Alternately inspired, exhausting, clever, stupid (not to mention stupid-clever), and about as meta as any kidpic this side of “Duck Amuck,” the Paul Tibbitt-directed feature ought to prove equally popular among the franchise’s key grade-schooler and head-shop-owner demographics.
Though the film’s marketing materials make the most of its characters’ expansion into three-dimensional CG, most of the first two acts take the more familiar form of Stephen Hillenburg’s TV toon, interspersed with live-action narration from an irritable pirate (Antonio Banderas) relating the tale to a flock of talking seagulls.
Down in the undersea hamlet of Bikini Bottom, SpongeBob (Tom Kenny), Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), Squidward (Rodger Bumpass) and Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) are busy fending off the latest incursion from failed invertebrate restaurateur Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) to steal the secret Krabby Patty recipe that keeps the venerable Krusty Krab afloat. As usual, Plankton’s schemes are foiled, yet in the aftermath, the recipe mysteriously vanishes. Deprived of its beloved Krabby Patties, Bikini Bottom descends into “Mad Max”-esque post-apocalyptic chaos within seconds. (“I hope you like leather,” Krabs quips to Squidward, in the first of many references — others involve Stanley Kubrick, Douglas Adams and Sergio Leone — that will fly high over the heads of the youngest audiences.)
As the only one who believes Plankton innocent of the recipe’s disappearance, SpongeBob teams up with his onetime adversary to track it down, while Bikini Bottom careens further and further into savagery. The story doesn’t take long to begin to break down, spinning off on several seasons’ worth of tangents at once, offering distinctive takes on subjects ranging from time travel to Aztec human sacrifice, the Fisher King myth, the efficacy of torture, and the proliferation of food trucks. In the film’s most hallucinatory sequence, Plankton takes a journey inside SpongeBob’s unconscious; in its most elaborate, the gang all emerge onto the surface in full CG, where they wreak havoc on a crowded beach and form an “Avengers”-style superhero squad. (Mike Mitchell is credited as director for the live-action sequences, which are amusing enough, if a bit prosaic compared with the much richer silliness of the 2D animation.)
At 92 minutes, this can all become a bit much for the non-addled adult minds in attendance, and a few more down moments might have been welcome. But then again, a “dark night of the soul” sequence would hardly have been appropriate here, and credit is due to director Tibbitt for never even feigning a lick of seriousness. At times there’s a genuine sense of daring to the film’s freewheeling anarchy, its refusal to stick to a central theme or impart any sort of lesson.
On a technical level, “SpongeBob” has certainly never pretended to be a Studio Ghibli feature, but the film’s palette is as bright and colorful as ever. Pharrell Williams contributes some goofy original songs alongside NERD bandmates Chad Hugo and Shay Haley, but none are anywhere near as memorable as the extended rap battle written by YouTube stars Peter Shukoff and Lloyd Ahiquist.