This past weekend Fifty Shades of Grey opened to whopping commercial success, enjoying the most profitable opening weekend ever for an R-rated movie. It came not long after American Sniper—another R-rated movie that audiences seem to enjoy debating more than actually watching—sat atop America’s box office chart for about a month. Clint Eastwood’s latest had been dethroned one weekend earlier, however, by another, more genial cultural phenomenon: SpongeBob SquarePants, whose second theatrical feature, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, drew in audiences to the tune of $50 million. Sponge Out of Water happens to be a better film than Sniper or Grey, though it hasn’t received nearly as much critical attention as either. One reason might be that, unlike the others, The SpongeBob Movie is way more fun to watch than discuss.
Whereas Sniper and Grey divide audiences, SpongeBob is a great uniter. Images of the cartoon character became an unofficial sign of solidarity among Tahrir Square protesters in 2011, appearing on countless T-shirts and backpacks, and for several years now the Russian army and navy have sung the SpongeBob theme song in marching drills. Guest stars on the SpongeBob Squarepants TV series have included Patton Oswalt, David Bowie, and Kristen Wiig. SpongeBob is hip, but not because he’s secretly designed for adults, like many of Jay Ward’s creations were. It’s because the free-form storytelling and non sequitur jokes of Squarepants inspire comparisons with 60s countercultural humor, though a closer point of reference would seem to be the stories young children make up with each other.
So it goes with Sponge Out of Water, a blatantly nonsensical feature that spins out ridiculous ideas with the giddiness and speed of a kid full of candy. It speaks to grade school children like few other recent movies I’ve seen. At both screenings of the film I’ve attended, grade-schoolers in the audience have watched the entire thing in near silence—a welcome change of pace from the palpable (and typically audible) restlessness I encounter at most other children’s fare. Why is that? Lots of animated kids’ films nowadays seem designed for short attention spans. The defining characteristic of cartoon features post-Shrek might be a steady barrage of one-liners, many of which trade in pop-culture references or grown-up innuendoes that grade-schoolers can’t appreciate. These films also tend to be busy in their visual design, full of computer-generated intricacies that draw attention away from what matters most in the frame.
For all the technical sophistication of a recent Shrek knockoff like The Book of Life, the story is pure Hollywood formula, derived from grown-up adventure movies as much as fairy tales. No wonder kids get restless at something like that—on a subconscious level, they must realize they aren’t really watching a children’s movie but rather a grown-up movie dumbed down for kids. No amount of one-liners or snazzy visuals can distract kids from a paucity of truly childlike thinking. On the other hand, kids will sit reverentially for a simpler-looking cartoon like Sponge Out of Water—or a slow, earnest one like My Neighbor Totoro—if they connect with its worldview.
It helps that SpongeBob is more childlike than the heroes of most of other animated features. He doesn’t aspire to much more than having fun, being liked, and doing well at his job as a fry cook. An innocent who always acts on good intentions, he’s ultimately blameless for any of his mistakes. He’s also, like Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse before him, a reassuringly constant presence. One doesn’t sit in anticipation of what SpongeBob will do—one wants to know what adventure will befall him next. Working against such expectations, the makers of SpongeBob Squarepants have an easy time following whatever odd idea they come up with. This gives rise to memorable non-sequiturs like the one in Sponge Out of Water, when two members of an angry mob attempt to shake down a tire for information. Says one rioter, “Let some more air out of him! See if he talks!”
Episodes of the SpongeBob TV show typically begin as two-page outlines the writer or writers submit to the animation team, which then build upon the scenario in pictures. This approach facilitates the sort of associative humor described above, as well as a sublime looseness of time and space. Like the Looney Tunes or the Fleischer brothers’ creations, characters on SpongeBob regularly grow and diminish in size, change their shapes, or find themselves suddenly transported to strange new environments. All three things occur at once in Sponge Out of Water when the minuscule Plankton, SpongeBob’s erstwhile enemy, crawls into the hero’s brain in search of a top secret crab-sandwich recipe, only to find himself in a nightmare version of Candy Land that seems to go on forever.
Fittingly Sponge Out of Water revolves around the characters breaking laws of time and space. To track down the crab-sandwich recipe—without which the hero’s underwater community will erupt into chaos—SpongeBob and Plankton build a time machine to go back to when they saw it last. (That they have less trouble constructing a time machine than remembering the recipe goes without comment, one of the movie’s subtler jokes.) Time travel turns out to be an unnecessary detour, as the recipe never left the present—it just got stolen from the characters’ animated world by a live-action pirate who hopes to open his own food truck.
Developments like this suggest that anything could happen in Sponge Out of Water. More importantly they remind viewers, children and adults alike, that movies don’t have to play by the rules of reality. Movies can make their own rules, and in fact they’re often more entertaining when they do. In recent months, American movie culture has been more concerned with formal matters than usual. Three of the front-runners for this year’s Best Picture Oscar—Birdman, Boyhood, and The Grand Budapest Hotel—are unabashedly ambitious with regards to form, leaving even casual viewers talking about things like narrative structure and shot duration. Jean-Luc Godard, arguably the most self-conscious narrative filmmaker of all time, made his biggest splash on U.S. movie culture in decades with Goodbye to Language. And Michael Mann somehow managed to release an avant-garde movie to the multiplexes. Sponge Out of Water is a worthy addition to this cycle of films, communicating joy in its own formation and constant reformation—a pleasure that’s less childish than ageless.