Around the time of the first Shrek movie—roughly the early 2000s—it became de rigueur for animated films to include assertive, winking jokes targeted at adults, gags or pop-culture references that would sail right over the kiddies’ heads while eliciting knowing chuckles from the grownups. The suggestion was that adults needed permission to enjoy the films they felt duty-bound to bring their kids to. It could never be enough just to laugh at a talking donkey.
The SpongeBob SquarePants franchise offers no such promise of elitist sophistication. In the undersea village of Bikini Bottom and its environs, we’re invited to accept the logic of a pet snail who meows, or to appreciate the way a grouchy restaurant owner, who happens to be a literal crab, chants “Money! Money! Money!” because there is nothing on Earth, or even under the sea, he loves more. The point of SpongeBob SquarePants in general—and the specific aim of The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run, the third entry in the feature-film annex of the long-running television show—is to splash around in ridiculousness for its own sake. The movie is an act of loony generosity we shouldn’t refuse. This is ludicrous entertainment for frazzled times.
Here’s the plot: Undersea sponge boy SpongeBob (voiced by Tom Kenny) returns home from his job flipping Krabby Patties down at the Krusty Krab to discover that his beloved pet snail, Gary—the meowing one—is missing. Gary has been snatched by the nefarious one-eyed villain Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) and turned over to vain sea god Poseidon (Matt Berry), who has run out of the snail slime he needs to maintain his youthful complexion. Distraught—as evidenced by the tears that splash, Old Faithful-like, from his eyes—SpongeBob vows to rescue Gary. His loyal friend Patrick Starfish (Bill Fagerbakke) insists on accompanying him to Poseidon’s underwater kingdom, otherwise known as the Lost City of Atlantic City. A disobedient robot named Otto (Awkwafina), built by scientist-squirrel Sandy (Carolyn Lawrence), drives them there in a boat.
And there you have it—though I realize I’ve neglected to mention that Danny Trejo and Keanu Reeves also breeze through, the former as a zombie cowboy and the latter as a literal talking head who offers wisdom and guidance from the hollow center of a tumbleweed. (His name is Sage.) Sometimes Sponge on the Run is all-animated; sometimes the animation is mixed in with live action. Its director, Tim Hill, does not seem at all worried that audiences won’t know the difference.
All that matters here is joy. Our job in watching Sponge on the Run is to revel in the way Krusty Krab owner Eugene Krabs (Clancy Brown) marches around with dollar signs in his eyes, to gaze in wonder at the enticingly disreputable metropolis of the Lost City of Atlantic City, a riot of casinos, pizza joints and neck-breaking amusement-park rides, to take pleasure in the movie’s palette of ebulliently fake undersea candy colors, from hot pink to screaming yellow to menthol aqua. You will not come away having learned much of anything from Sponge on the Run beyond the fact that being a true friend is important—which, come to think of it, is a pretty big thing. There is one serious note here: The film is dedicated to SpongeBob’s creator, Stephen Hillenburg, who died in 2018, and who was, pre-Spongebob, an actual marine biologist. We have him to thank, then, for this fantasy world grown out of science, like magic rocks that turn into color-crazy stalagmites in a goldfish bowl. Whether you’re eight or 80, you’ll get all the jokes in Sponge on the Run. Its wisdom is infinite.