ANNECY, France — Having traveled from the floor of Bikini Bottom to the shores of Lake Annecy in France, SpongeBob SquarePants is kicking off his 20th year at Europe’s most important animation festival with a Nickelodeon panel and accompanying sneak peek of the upcoming special “SpongeBob’s Big Birthday Blowout.”

A few lucky Annecy Intl. Animation Film Festival attendees who waited online to score tickets for the rapidly sold-out panel will be the first in the world to see the special, which will release worldwide on the slimy orange network on July 12.

The accompanying panel will include Nickelodeon and SpongeBob vets including co-executive producers Marc Ceccarelli and Vincent Waller, producer Jennie Monica and writer Kaz Prapuolenis.

The special is a mix of traditional 2D animated and live action scenes, on a par with 2004’s “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie,” and even features a cameo from one of the film’s live action superstars. In it, the citizens of Bikini Bottom get together to plan a surprise party for SpongeBob, so Patrick whisks him to the surface to keep him occupied during the setup.

Once on land, the pair head to a lunch cafeteria called the Trusty Slab, where the now instantly recognizable characters will encounter their less recognizable voice-actor counterparts fulfilling the same roles at the restaurant. It’s the first time that the cast will be on-screen alongside the characters they’ve given life to for the past two decades.

“I think that is a really special, exciting moment for our voice talent,” Nickelodeon EVP of animation production and development Ramsey Naito told Variety ahead of the festival. “It pays homage to them, to everyone who worked on the franchise and to Steve,” she said in reference to SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg, who passed away in November.

“Steve was an icon in this animation community and a true leader and artistic mentor to everyone here at Nickelodeon,” she went on. “We owe so much to Steve. I think this 20th anniversary is, no question, a love letter to him from everyone who knew him and who ever worked on this franchise.”

The sneak peek and panel are only the start of what will be a massive year for the SpongeBob franchise. The next twelve months will see a new season of the series, Paramount’s “The SpongeBob Movie: It’s a Wonderful Sponge” and just last week it was announced that a new spinoff series is in development at Nickelodeon titled “Kamp Koral.”

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“I think what’s great about ‘Kamp Koral’ is that it really provides a window into the wonder years. We all love Spongebob and the relationships he has with his friends and this will be where it all began. There are emotional pins which will resonate with fans,” explained Naito.

Although based on the classic “SpongeBob SquarePants” series, “Kamp Koral” will feature familiar characters at a much earlier stage in their lives, and will be developed using CGI rather than the series’ and film’s traditional 2D animation techniques.

“It’s a great opportunity for us,” Naito said. “Now the tech is at a place where we can make SpongeBob and replicate or reference the animation style we love from 2D in CG with extreme squash and stretch kind of animation, and also to take advantage of the tools CGI allows us to use like texture, lighting and so many other things. I think it’s going to be standout great.”

And, while some fans might be resistant to change, Naito is confident the new series will strike a similar chord to the original.

“The fans that love Spongebob identify with him and the love he has for his community and his friends,” she explained. “I think the world of Bikini Bottom is a reflection of what every person has in their own life, so we are looking at ways to celebrate Bikini Bottom and Spongebob himself. I think it’s our mandate to look at the Spongebob universe and talk about ways we can spin off authentically, while staying true to the core of what Steve created and what Spongebob represents for everybody.”

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