The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is an absurdist comedy gem

Arriving in cinemas 15 years ago this month, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is the epitome of all-ages entertainment. It is absurdist, hilarious, thoughtful and gloriously off-the-wall, writes critic Sarah Ward.

“You don’t need a license to drive a sandwich,” SpongeBob SquarePants announces as he hops behind the wheel — of a hamburger-shaped car. With best friend Patrick Star by his side, the famous Bikini Bottom resident is off to find King Neptune’s crown and save his Krusty Krab boss Mr Krabs, who is accused of stealing the former’s regal headwear.

It’s a climactic moment in 2004’s The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, and the film treats it accordingly. As uttered with more cool command in the talking sponge’s voice than usual, the feature gives SpongeBob’s line time to land, as it should. Those nine words encapsulate much of the animated series’ appeal, and the movie’s. So does another that sums up the dialogue: absurd.

Whether he’s yelling “I’m ready!” about every development in his life, palling around with starfish Patrick, petting his cat-like pet snail Gary or annoying his ennui-filled neighbour Squidward, SpongeBob SquarePants has always been silly. Since first greeting the world in his eponymous television show in 1999, he has capitalised upon that ridiculousness to become the sponge that launched a thousand memes, a mountain of merchandise and a catchy theme tune (speaking his name rather than singing it is virtually impossible).

And so, the absorbent, yellow and porous sea creature has featured in 251 episodes to date, inspired a Tony-winning Broadway musical, and sparked comic books, theme park rides, video games and music. Making the leap to the big screen in two films — with a third to come — may just represent his finest moment.

The character’s absurdity and longevity have always gone hand-in-hand — and, they shine in the cinema. As told with the same kind of energy that the creature himself famously oozes, on TV SpongeBob is an endless sea of surreal, enjoyably ridiculous comedy that zips and bounces across 11-minute installments, but it finds a deeper groove when extended to feature length.

So, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie does what the show does best: engages with viewers young and old, kicks the silly side of their sense of humour into gear and remains constantly inventive, all while touching upon themes and issues of relevance to everyone watching.  No wonder Keanu Reeves has jumped onboard the figure’s next swim across the silver screen, aka 2020’s The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge On the Run. He plays a tumbleweed made of sage that also gives sage advice, naturally.

Before SpongeBob could run towards Keanu – or venture beyond the sea in 2015’s The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water – The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie demonstrated his big screen appeal in its first outing. Directed by SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg, and hitting cinemas 15 years ago this month, the film achieved that feat by embracing its larger canvas, its mile-a-minute jokes and non sequiturs, and the fact that adults who weren’t already fans would be paying attention.

This is the movie that gets SpongeBob drunk, after all. After failing to secure a big promotion, he drowns his sorrows with Patrick by binging on towering ice cream sundaes, which leads to slurred words, erratic behaviour and a nasty hangover the next day. He’s only intoxicated on sugar, which is something every child watching could easily relate to without cottoning on to the second meaning. But it’s a scene clearly designed to resonate with those of alcohol-imbibing age.

The sequence is brought to life like many a frenetic, nightmarish bender that has featured on-screen, giving the film’s animators plenty of room to play with the concept. As SpongeBob and Patrick keep gorging, flecks of ice cream flying across the room in their manic frenzy, they’re visibly taken from the bright, clean look that SpongeBob SquarePants is known for, adopting the darker, purposefully more gruesome aesthetic of one of the program’s obvious predecessors, The Ren & Stimpy Show.

That too is a nod to older audiences. And while The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie needn’t pitch so forcefully at adults, it shows just how absurd the film is happy to become. Such willingness is the key to SpongeBob SquarePants in all of its forms; there’s nothing too ludicrous and farcical for this series, and no familiar situation that can’t be twisted for hilarious but still thoughtful means.

From the moment that it kicks off with live-action pirates fishing for treasure and finding tickets to the film itself inside a trunk, that’s The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie in a clamshell. Moving to the pineapple under the sea that SpongeBob calls home, watching his daily routine (those square pants are made from cardboard, which somehow doesn’t turn soggy under the ocean’s surface, because logic has no place here), and seeing how excited he is about managing a fast food restaurant all keep the absurdist vibe going. This movie likes its over-the-top gags in both big and small, and throwaway and existential guises. For adults, what’s more exaggerated than seeing someone bubbling with infectious enthusiasm about their daily grind?

Coping with life’s disappointments, witnessing injustice, taking on difficult tasks, weathering bullying and persecution, battling petty opponents – once SpongeBob arrives at the Krusty Krab, discovers he’s been passed over for Squidward and, post-ice cream onslaught, takes it upon himself to thwart his accused boss’ potential fate, that’s all in store, too. It reads like a laundry list of life lessons that even a child can understand, because that’s the point, but that doesn’t make The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie any less creative, surreal or gleefully delightful in its humour.

Its skill comes from pairing gags and life lessons with smart and genuine insights, all while continuing to surprise. Equally offbeat, sincere and sophisticated, this is the type of movie that flips the idea of playing dress-up with fake facial hair into a musing on modern-day masculinity and the mindset it inspires, complete with an accompanying song by The Flaming Lips.

That’s the kind of expansive fish bowl that The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie floats in. As does the series— and everything that SpongeBob has inspired. It’s a small splash from SpongeBob’s surreal gags to Rick and Morty and BoJack Horseman, and to live-action ventures into the territory such as I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson and even The Good Place.

Indeed, for kids, SpongeBob is a deep and vibrant gateway. For adults, it’s absurdist comedy as it should be. For both, too, it’s the epitome of all-ages entertainment that’s actually for all ages.