Someone is always doing something slightly repulsive in "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water," a feature-length version of Nickelodeon's cartoon series. There are jokes about butts, poop, brain matter and bellybutton crud, and that's just within the first 30 minutes.
That gross-out humor may explain why "SpongeBob" has been such a hit with children since first appearing in 1999, but there's something cynical about these characters and the way they behave. They're so grotesquely misshapen and so mercenary when it comes to landing a punchline that it's easy to laugh at them but difficult to muster anything like affection. That said, fans of the frenetic half-hour show will get a 90-minute version in "The SpongeBob Movie."
A mix of animation (directed by Paul Tibbitt) and live-action (by Mike Mitchell), "SpongeBob" begins in the undersea town of Bikini Bottom, where fast-food mogul Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) learns that his secret recipe for Krabby Patties has vanished. Deprived of its favorite junk food, the population revolts and civilization instantly spirals into a "Mad Max"-style apocalypse. (Sandy Cheeks, the underwater squirrel voiced by Carolyn Lawrence, becomes a religious fanatic.) It's up to our invertebrate hero, SpongeBob (Tom Kenny), and the cantankerous Plankton (Douglas "Mr. Lawrence" Osowski) to find the recipe and bring it home.
Their journey will involve time travel, a superintelligent dolphin and a pirate named Burger Beard (played with gusto by Antonio Banderas). In other words, "SpongeBob" is a joke extravaganza, not a narrative. What it lacks in emotional resonance -- this ain't "Toy Story" -- it tries to make up for with non-sequiturs and a lengthy sequence in which our 2-D protagonists become 3-D superheroes. The jokes are hit-and-miss, though the dolphin-vs.-seagull rap battle achieves a zany brilliance.
Written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger ("Kung-Fu Panda 2") from a story by Tibbitt and series creator Stephen Hillenburg, "The SpongeBob Movie" might be funnier and more likable if it had something like a heart. The franchise has been functioning just fine, though, without one.