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SpongeBob leaps out of the sea and onto the big screen in Sponge Out of Water

The great Plankton debate has finally been answered. The smart villain is, as expected, much better than the greedy Krusty Krab autocrat Mr Krabs and the insipid starfish sidekick Patrick. Or so the latest SpongeBob big screen venture (following 2004’s The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie) would have us believe. Leaping off the bonkers weird energies of new-era toons Rick and Morty and Adventure Time, which the original SpongeBob animation no doubt influenced, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water is as much a sequel as it is a sensory overload: exhausting for parents, vibrant for kids and a crapshoot for everyone in between.

The picture begins out of water and in clarifying live action. Antonio Banderas, who plays a scenery-chewing Pirate (he should now be in every movie), attains a book that will let him write his own story, and grant him his every wish. Through his soothing Spanish tune we are re-introduced to the underwater city of Bikini Bottom, the Krusty Krabb, Krabby Patties and the cast of regulars. Scheming Plankton is once again fighting with SpongeBob for the secret burger recipe when it is lost, stolen by the aspiring Pirate. The two must team (or re-team) up to clear their names, find the secret formula and save Bikini Bottom.

An unlikely alliance and two storylines to bring together: The Pirate heading for shore to use the formula to make riches and our shaggy regulars on a quest to stop him, it all seems like pretty simple sequel stuff. Yet director Paul Tibbit and screenwriters Glenn Berger and Jonathan Aibel layer the film with meta-self awareness, zany comic energy and trademark irreverence. Bikini Bottom becomes a Mad Maxian apocalyptic netherworld at the closing down of its favourite fast food joint and SpongeBob must teach Plankton teamwork while he teaches SpongeBob time travel.

Piqued by their meeting with a dolphin deity at the edges of the galaxy, the weirdness finds Tibbit and co. experimenting with different styles of animation. From endearing stop motion to traditional hand-drawn to slick CG, this is an exciting hybrid. Thankfully, the bulk of the film takes place in rather than out of the water. The third act, in which SpongeBob, Squidward, Patrick, Sandy, Mr. Krabs and Plankton are endowed with live-action super powers, becomes more relevant than irreverent. While this film does the “superhero team” much better than Marvel did, it’s dispiriting to see the modern superhero bug infecting something as goofy, fun and otherwise flexible as SpongeBob.

Yet the film rightly feels like more than an extended episode of the original cartoon – it feels like 12 extended episodes of the original cartoon, so you should already know if this is for you or it isn’t. Allowing Plankton (singular not plural) to move from foe to friend to gentler foe posits that the best teams are those formed without compromising their members’ individuality. Sponge Out of Water, for the most part, retains the essence of SpongeBob: an awesome, if at times exhausting and nightmarishly surreal childhood phenomenon.

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