Image Credit: Nickelodeon. Description: Spongebob Squarepants and Patrick Star.
Just over 14 years ago, the golden age of a certain absorbent and yellow and porous sponge came to a tragic end. While it’s dangerous to use such a nostalgic term, Stephen Hillenburg’s departure following his directorial work on The Spongebob Movie (2004) undoubtedly led to a decrease in the TV series’ quality.
The once high standards disappeared beneath the satisfactory and the downright horrendous until Hillenburg returned to help with Sponge Out of Water (2015) and gradually stabilised the subsequent seasons, albeit not to their former glory.
The first movie’s Odyssean plot follows the arduous journey of Spongebob (Tom Kenny) and Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) as they try to retrieve King Neptune’s (Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor) crown from Shell City while Plankton wreaks havoc in Bikini Bottom. I watched the film at just about every single sleepover with my best friend in primary school (sorry Lesley, you should have put your foot down from time to time and suggested something else) and a few times in later life with younger cousins. The work marks the pinnacle of the Spongebob franchise.
The film certainly stands the test of time, and its stellar voice cast are on fine form. If your only image of Scarlett Johansson is Black Widow, then take a moment to remember her role as Princess Mindy, resourceful daughter of the angry King Neptune and love interest of an infatuated Patrick Star. Alec Baldwin also provides a decent baddie as Plankton’s hired hitman Dennis.
It’s quick, surreal moments like these that marked the genius of classic Spongebob…
Yet it’s the eclectic idiocy of the main cast that make the movie shine. Maybe it’s just the virtue of watching a film several times over, but Derek Drymon and Tim Hill’s screenplay has given me some of the most memorable quotes in any animated film I’ve seen. It would diminish the film’s magic to list all of them here, but if you want a lesson on how to be an obnoxious drunk, check out the ice cream (a thinly veiled allegory for alcohol) scene in the Goofy Goober establishment. The word ‘waiter’ will never be the same again.
The balance in the film’s use of slapstick violence and absurd characterisation reflects the same tone of the earlier episodes which later ones disregard. If we want to look at a particularly poor example of the second factor, ‘The Splinter’ is surely the main culprit. The plot is relatively straightforward; Spongebob gets a splinter and tries to pull it out. Yet the unnecessarily graphic imagery of pus that ensues removes any possibility of hilarity in favour of lazy gross-out moments.
If you want to see Spongebob’s comic violence at its best, look no further than ‘The Camping Episode’. After accepting Spongebob and Patrick’s challenge to camp a mere few feet away from their own houses, the trio are attacked by a Sea Bear. Squidward’s refusal to follow established Sea Bear protection rules ultimately leads to several intense attacks off screen. His increasingly battered form as he returns from each onslaught with unexplained plasters isn’t gratuitous and focused on in the same needlessly gory scenes of ‘The Splinter’.
The same creative hilarity takes place in ‘Frankendoodle’. When the eponymous drawing throws a bowling ball at Patrick, the starfish’s head randomly transforms into a bowling pin before separating into ten knocked-over bowling pins as the ball makes contact, leading to two red strike marks appearing in the corner of the screen. It’s quick, surreal moments like these that marked the genius of classic Spongebob. Also, it would be heinous not to mention my favourite episode ‘Band Geeks’ (original choice, I know), when the flag spinners spin the flags so fast they are propelled into the air and explode into a nearby blimp. The new seasons’ move away from surreal violence towards realistic gore diminishes the comic power of its episodes.
Season seven’s ‘One Course Meal’ also represents the series’ greatest example of characterisation gone wrong. After learning that Plankton (Douglas Lawrence Osowski)) is afraid of whales, Mr Krabs (Clancy Brown) dresses up as his daughter Pearl and spends the majority of the episode terrorising him. If Spongebob telling Plankton the secret formula isn’t already out of character, then Mr Krab’s malicious torture of his adversary over several weeks takes this to a whole new level. The materialist crustacean has lost all of his greedy and cunning techniques, and is diminished to a mindless psychopath. Plankton’s determination to get run over after his suffering emphasises the dark, humourless tone of the whole episode.
‘The Splinter’ suffers from similar characterisation deficiencies, notably found in Patrick Star. When Spongebob asks him to remove the splinter, the pink starfish responds by hitting the afflicted finger with a hammer. Ignorance had always been a staple of the character, yet the new series took this trait to a ridiculous degree. When Patrick asks if mayonnaise is in an instrument in ‘Band Geeks’, it’s hilariously absurd. When he angrily tells customers he is speaking, and not the Krusty Krab in ‘Big Pink Loser’, his mistake is lovingly understandable. Yet the idea of smashing his best friend’s finger with the instrument in order to remove the splinter insults any self-proclaimed Spongebob fan, and replaces Patrick’s naivety with downright stupidity.
While recent episodes have mostly increased in quality since Hillenburg’s return, the classic episodes have yet to be matched. If true nautical nonsense is something you wish, stick to the first movie and the three previous seasons.