The theatrical animation fan within this critic has a rather large soft spot for the first two Spongebob feature films. Both are significantly better then they have any right to be. They feel like the teams behind them were allowed to be as weird and experimental as they could well still having the backing of one of the most popular children’s media franchises there is. Having seen the second film in cinemas with an Unlimited card this viewer would have happily seen the third entry when it was slated as theatrical. Then COVID happened and the film was shuffled off Paramonts schedule and sold as with subscription streaming exclusive to Netflix internationally. As a Netflix subscriber and fan of the first two films, this was pleasing news. In an ideal world, it is always better-seeing films theatrically but this is the kind of project that would mot louse a great deal being watched on streaming (aside from the fact that a theatrical Reel D 3D master may exist for the film.) When it did come to Netflix last week it was a surprisingly high priority watch. how does the third entry fare?
Unfortunately, this was something of a disappointment. The newest entry ditches the traditional 2D Spongebob style for an entirely CG visual aesthetic (outside of some live-action segments.) The CG is solid enough but Stephen Hillenburg and the initial creative team designed SpongeBob to take place in an intentionally small feeling world with limited locations. Seeing the Bikini Bottom landmarks in CG bring that point home very nicely. It will make viewers question what advantage this presentation has over traditional 2D. The CG does get to flex its muscles a little bit more with some solid animation in the second and third act. Critically though this all takes place at a location that was specifically designed for the film. Thus the animators have a lot more scope as to what they can create. This suits the CG style better but is the first indication of what feels overall like a much more cynical effort third time round.
Beyond the aesthetic changes the, main question fans in the animation community will be asking is how much respect is shown towards Hillenburg and his legacy after he passed away from MS in 2018. Unlike the first two films it does have an air of feeling like something of a contractual obligation. There have been debates amongst animation fans since Hillenburg passed away regarding how much he knew about the many proposed spinoffs Nickelodeon and Paramount had lined up. The newest entry was envisioned in part as a backdoor pilot for a new CG series focusing on younger iterations of the SpongeBob characters going to a variety of summer camp. Knowing this going it is somewhat surprising to learn that for the first two acts Camp Coral is only briefly referenced. The cynicism comes charging through in the third act when setting up the spin-off becomes the narrative backbone of the ending. Even if watchers don’t know this beforehand it’s hard to avoid when a solid 25 minutes of a film that runs 83 minutes, not including credits are spent on a summer camp diversion.
The film does attempt to carry on the tradition of employing some elements of surrealism in places but the attempts feel a lot less organic. Gone are the days of weird David Hasselhoff cameos, telekinetic dolphins and drug trip NERD soundtracked time travel sequences. Now we have a very forced Snoop Dogg musical number. This was partially done for the celebrity cameo but it can’t be ignored that if you look at the man’s work over the last 10 years he’ll do anything for a paycheck. The main surrealist element (the one marketed by all the trailers)is the presence of Keanu Reeves as Sage the tumbleweed. This is a funny idea in concept given Keanu Reeves cultural resurgence and somewhat meme status in 2020. However, the screenplay doesn’t do anything with any character-specific jokes beyond the inherently amusing idea of a sensei like a tumbleweed with the voice and superimposed live-action head of Keanu Reeves. Very much like the film as a whole the core surrealism is still attempted with the newest entry but is nowhere near as effective.
Regardless of how much Stephen Hillenburg did or did not know about this project before his passing as a final product Sponge on the Run is a notable step down from the first two SpongeBob features. The switch to CG animation is solid enough but doesn’t offer anything over using the shows traditional style in the pre-established locations. While the setting up of the Camp Coral spin-off is not as in the audience face as it might be. That said the fact it forms the narrative backbone of the last act is certainly the element of the film that sticks out as being disrespectful towards Hillenburg’s legacy. The attempts at surrealism also feel a lot less organic third time round. It’s far from the worst animation viewers could be watching in 2020 but expectations for any further SpongeBob feature adventures have been significantly dialled back (at least in this critic’s mind.)