LOS ANGELES — America’s favorite deep-sea sponge is coming to the surface.
SpongeBob SquarePants, a goofy sink utensil who wears a little brown suit and lives in a pineapple at the bottom of the ocean, has spent the past five years on the Nickelodeon TV channel. Now a new film out Friday sends him to a “real world” both simple and surreal.
Here are 10 little-known facts about “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” and the origin of a cartoon cult icon:
1. THE BIRTH OF SPONGEBOB: The movie’s director and “SpongeBob” creator Stephen Hillenburg was a former marine science teacher who wanted to do a sea cartoon. “I really wanted to do something about one character, based on an innocent who is surrounded by more cynical beings...A sort of awkward, nerdy, goofball, oddball,” he said.
Fish seemed too ordinary, so he started thinking about a sponge.
“I drew these natural sponges for a while and gave them googly eyes and it didn’t come together until I drew a sink sponge one day. I thought, ‘This is the guy.’ He’s the square peg, literally, in this world of animals.”
2. HELIUM VOICE: Tom Kenny, who supplies SpongeBob’s high, nasal voice, was a standup comic who worked with Hillenburg on the 1993 animal cartoon series “Rocko’s Modern World.” When “SpongeBob” started in 1999, Hillenburg remembered an obscure character Kenny did years earlier, and envisioned it as the voice of his weird sea hero.
“It was in one episode in a crowd scene,” Kenny recalled. “In the voice-over world we call the sound ‘walla,’ just a crowd of people mumbling and grumbling. Steve remembered I had done this squeaky, helium-voiced elf guy. Just a total throwaway voice.”
Kenny had to go back and rewatch the episode to remember how to do it.
3. NINE TIMES AS ABSORBENT: Most half-hour SpongeBob TV episodes are made of 10-minute shorts, so the new 90-minute film required a different kind of story: SpongeBob and his slowwitted starfish friend Patrick travel to the surface to rescue the crown of temperamental King Neptune.
“This movie is really SpongeBob’s big adventure,” Hillenburg said, referencing the first movie of similar nerd character Pee-Wee Herman.
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4. BALD SPOT: Among the movie’s celebrity voices is Jeffrey Tambor as the overly angry King Neptune, whose missing crown reveals his blinding baldness.
Tambor, the criminal father from the Emmy-winning comedy “Arrested Development” and the pathetic “Hey, now!” announcer from “The Larry Sanders Show,” said he shares the follicle-challenged scalp of the character, but not his insecurities.
“I don’t have those issues. I look lousy in a rug,” Tambor said. “I worked because of being bald, so I’m blessed. I mean, I was the guy in summer stock (theater) who played all the old guys at 16.”
5. PATRICK THE STARFISH: Bill Fagerbakke, best known as Dauber from TV’s “Coach,” has a naturally deep voice, but has to swallow it further to play SpongeBob’s dopey starfish friend Patrick.
The result, he said, is an audible version of the fat/skinny look of comedy teams like Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello — Patrick is the immense rumbler and SpongeBob is the high-pitched whiner.
“I just kinda pretend my mouth is in my chest and I just slooowww down,” Fagerbakke said.
6. UNDERSEA SONGWRITER: Besides doing SpongeBob’s voice, Kenny also wrote two songs for the movie’s soundtrack: one with the title hero singing “The Best Day Ever” and another with Patrick singing “Under My Rock.”
A group of old-time pirates sings the theme song in the film, and Avril Lavigne belts it out on the soundtrack CD. “It originated as a sea chanty,” Hillenburg said of the theme. “It’s supposed to be like a song sailors use, a working song to keep rhythm while they’re pulling up things.”
7. HASSELHOFF TO THE RESCUE: Former “Baywatch” star David Hasselhoff appears in live action as a lifeguard who jumps in to help SpongeBob and Patrick in a critical moment.
“We wrote the entire sequence without asking him,” Hillenburg said. “Fortunately, he’s a great guy...He didn’t even see the material and said, ‘I’m in.’ He was great at making fun of himself.”
Other celebrity voices in the movie include “Lost in Translation” star Scarlett Johansson as King Neptune’s reasonable daughter Mindy and Alec Baldwin as a deep-sea hitman.
8. WHY ADULTS LIKE SPONGEBOB: “It’s about keeping your kid-nature in life and not totally becoming a curmudgeon,” Hillenburg said. “As we get older it gets harder to do that.”
“SpongeBob’s job is to just be positive and think that every day is going to be the best day ever,” Kenny added. “The people around him either find that delightful or...just irritating.”
9. WIFE SWAP: Kenny’s real-life wife, comic Jill Talley, supplies the deadpan voice of Karen — the computer program “wife” of the character Plankton, who is a tiny, green, megalomaniacal sea villain.
A computer on the ocean floor? Kenny says it’s one of the movie’s “Don’t-ask-why” moments. “Logic doesn’t have a place. SpongeBob and his friends light campfires underwater, they cry, they go to the beach...”
10. FUTURE EPISODES: There have only been a handful of new “SpongeBob” TV episodes since 2003, but — despite rumors — the series has not been canceled.
Kenny, Fagerbakke and the rest of the crew have completed four new episodes for broadcast on Nickelodeon in early 2005. They plan to finish about 20 total.
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