Sponge on the Run could have been a nostalgic charmer, but is instead little more than a bit of cheap brand marketing.
After 22 years, Spongebob Squarepants is only now receiving a spin-off in Kamp Koral, a series exploring Mr. Squarepants’ childhood adventures at summer camp. Some claim that series creator Stephen Hillenburg staunchly opposed the very idea and that his death in 2018 opened the door to a spin-off, though these claims are largely unsubstantiated even as the timing is a little fishy. Accompanying the new series’ release on Paramount+ is Spongebob Squarepants: Sponge on the Run, a CGI-animated film that functions partially as a backdoor pilot for Kamp Koral. It’s possible that fan concern about Hillenburg’s wishes is unfounded, but if Sponge on the Run is indicative of Spongebob’s future, well, let’s just say there’s an alarming amount of sand in this Bikini Bottom.
The film’s plot finds Spongebob and Patrick on the road to The Lost City of Atlantic City after its ruler, King Poseidon, kidnaps Spongebob’s pet snail Gary for use in his skincare regimen. The road movie structure, live-action segments, and regal villain all echo 2004’s The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, a comparison that does Sponge on the Run no favors. Whereas that film had the exuberant energy and creativity of the show at its best — not to mention a soundtrack full of bangers — this movie plays like a pale imitation of Spongebob. For one thing, the new CGI look, at its very best, merely approximates the look of the show, while at other times just looking like plastic. Phrases used by Spongebob 22 years ago are now catchphrases deployed by any and every character as a wink to the audience. Even Tom Kenny, the voice of Spongebob since the beginning, doesn’t quite sound like himself anymore. Voices change over time, of course, but Kenny’s performance always sounds like he’s just going through the motions here, never doing much of anything interesting with the character that he has made so indelible. It leaves the distinct impression of a cash grab, and the few flashbacks to the characters’ time at summer camp — and they were all there together, previously established Spongebob canon be damned — clarify its purpose as little more than an advertisement for the new TV show.
All of the recycling would be easily forgiven if the movie were at all funny, but it’s distinctly not, and it mostly doesn’t even seem to be trying. There are more jokes — good and bad — in any given 11-minute segment of the TV show than there are in this entire 90-minute movie. What humor the movie does have is mostly listless, like a bit about Spongebob and Patrick becoming addicted to gambling in Atlantic City or a few misguided stabs at relevancy, like references to technology and Squidward twerking. More surprising than those, though, are a number of references that are wildly out-of-date and wholly square, specifically parodies of both Kenny G and the Blue Man Group that function, like nearly everything else, as throwaway gags without any punchlines. In the film’s climax, Spongebob stands trial before Poseidon and all his friends testify to his value as a person through anecdotes about their shared past. But rather than indulging in heartfelt nostalgia for a beloved cartoon character’s long and celebrated run, such recounts only come off as cheap marketing for the franchise’s future, as literally all of these testimonials involve Kamp Koral. In the end, the latest outing for what was once a unique and vibrant kids show ends up as little more than a brazen opportunity for the brand.
You can currently stream Tim Hill’s The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run on Paramount+.