What a wave of surprise! Sponge on the Run is the best SpongeBob movie yet, even better than the timeless, daring and jubilant first one from 2004 that I grew up with.
I can’t voice my dislike for Sponge Out of Water enough. It was misleading, misguided, and jarringly took zilch seriously. More info about why I loved the first and loathed the second can be read here. But basically, Sponge out of Water drastically lowered my expectations for years about this film ever since a third theatrical movie was announced. When it was revealed this would be entirely 3D animated I felt that was a pleasant surprise. But its storyline from the trailer looked like an unoriginal mash of “Have You Seen This Snail?” and “Atlantis SquarePantis”. The place is even called “Atlantic City”. I guess Atlantis has some connections and leniency with their title rights. But something that brought my hope up ever so slightly was the director choice, Tim Hill, who’d helmed the first one and has directed some of my other favourite childhood films. And this movie would have to be pretty bad for me to hate it like its predecessor. I expected I at least wouldn’t dislike it that much, or as much as I disliked a similar animated film released this year, Scoob. I even wrote a review of that film just for the inclusion of this one.
So what is this mashup of “Trail of the Snail” and “Atlantis SquarePantis” about? The plain version is SpongeBob has to rescue his pet snail Gary. The seasoned fixin-topped version is King Poseidon himself uses snail slime to keep his face extra shiny and slimy. He prides on looking like someone he expects with that title should appear. But he’s used up all the juice from every snail he has. Desperate, he sends out ads for possible snails, and Plankton himself sees this as a great opportunity to drive SpongeBob away, now that he realizes it’s him who’s always been the one to foil his formula plans. Him and Patrick set out on a road trip to the lost Atlantic City, their only help being a tumbleweed named Sage, played in more than one way by the king of all we cherish himself, Keanu Reeves. But soon they’ll have even more help as their friends decide the right thing to do is be there for their absorbant pal.
All I really wanted from this film was for it to be fun, non-awkward, lively, and to sprinkle in a few scattered surprises. And it didn’t just check those boxes. No no no. It had a real sense of adventure, deep character pondering, and almost always avoided awkwardness whenever it easily could’ve done so. Too many movies aimed at third graders simply throw in fake tears and a message crafted white-elephant style to try and move an audience it underestimates. Sponge on the Run is not that. It is the most loving animated film since Coco, and I never expected to say those words from a SpongeBob production. One of the most unconventional yet terrific third acts for a cartoon film, or any film, I was expecting it to “bazinga” us at any time. Normally if something gets this good, it’s ruined for an easy laugh or plot device. Not here. They even leave behind a plot point, and usually I do not applaud that, but in the direction this whole movie was taking, it would’ve been so unnecessary bringing it in and killing the buzz. You’ll know what I’m talking about.
So how did they make this movie work so well that it rivals Pixar? The simple fact that they chose to centre the plot around SpongeBob rescuing his pet, and they don’t use it as an excuse for slapdash adventure. Instead, it really shows the love SpongeBob has for his snail, just like how any of us who’ve had pets understands the eternal bonds we form. It also puts Gary in a very dangerous circumstance, which is something unconventional for a kid’s film, so we can’t really predict where it’s going to end up, if it’ll resolve with King Poseidon happy or angry. That’s all fine, but then it presents growth to the side characters that will bring pride to everyone who’s ever felt different, or too kind for their own good. It’s easy for something like this to get too sugary sweet. The reason it doesn’t fall to that is the characters are honest that they’re flawed, and their friends are flawed, but some things are more important than flaws. Not only that, but it kind of retcons a few retcons, not going so far as to bring the Krusty Krab 2 back or have Plankton know the secret recipe like he does in the first movie, but Perch Perkins has returned, the Patty Wagon and even how to get there are back, and the road-trip-with-SpongeBob-and-Patrick has the same feeling without making it seem stale.
I recommend this film for old and new SpongeBob fans alike, but if you’re not a SpongeBob fan, you may not find the same magic in this film I did. Some criticisms others have had was that this film wasn’t firmly structured and had the aura of commercialism for the upcoming spin-off series, Camp Coral, as well as disregarding some of the stories of how the SpongeBob gang first met, especially Sandy. My comment towards that? All that may be so, but the filmmakers knew what they were working with and they prioritized properly. Even a movie with the grossest or weirdest or advertisest storyline can still work with the right mixture of heart, excitement and laughter.