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‘SpongeBob’ works better on the small screen

Teaches kids a lesson about liking themselves for who they are. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

Absorbent and yellow and porous is he, but SpongeBob SquarePants proves there’s a limit even to what he can achieve.

Sorry, boys and girls, I hate to break it to you, but I did not love “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.” And I really wanted to, because I’m a fan of the series.

Oh, the film is just as bright and colorful as the animated Nickelodeon TV show, a perennial presence at the top of the cable Nielsen ratings. All the characters you know and love are there, voiced by the same talented actors you’ve come to recognize, under the direction of series creator Stephen Hillenburg.

But part of the program’s charm is its quickness and quirkiness. You get two episodes in a half-hour, each of which is what, about 10 or 12 minutes? And there’s a wonderfully goofy energy to them, which, at its most off-kilter, is reminiscent of some of the weirder stuff that took place on “Ren & Stimpy.”

By extending the premise to a 90-minute feature, “The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie” feels dragged out and slowed down. It feels strained, a phenomenon that has never plagued the TV show.

Not that this review will hold water with kids — they’ll love the movie, then they’ll demand to have it in their homes when it comes out on DVD. Some parts might be too scary for really young children, though. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Similar to “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” an expansion of TV’s “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” the movie begins with SpongeBob (voiced as always with great heart and enthusiasm by Tom Kenny) waking up, going through his morning routine and getting dressed for what he hopes is a big day. Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown), his boss at the Krusty Krab restaurant in the underwater village of Bikini Bottom, is opening a Krusty Krab 2, and SpongeBob is certain he’ll be named manager.

He isn’t — the uptight squid Squidward (Rodger Bumpass) gets the gig because Mr. Krabs thinks SpongeBob is just a kid. SpongeBob drowns his sorrows in ice cream sundaes with his dimwitted best pal, Patrick the starfish (Bill Fagerbakke), and the very funny sequence finds them staggering around an ice cream parlor, bleary-eyed, then waking up hungover on the floor the next morning.

But SpongeBob finds a way to prove his worth to Mr. Krabs. The scheming Plankton (Mr. Lawrence, as the actor calls himself), owner of the competing Chum Bucket restaurant, frames Mr. Krabs by making it look as if he stole the crown from the merciless King Neptune (Jeffrey Tambor). SpongeBob and Patrick offer to travel to the dangerous Shell City, where the crown supposedly has been sold, and bring it back.

They get help in the gadget and self-esteem departments from King Neptune’s mermaid daughter, Princess Mindy (Scarlett Johansson), who looks like Johansson’s “Ghost World” co-star, Thora Birch, with her bobbed haircut and thick-rimmed glasses.

Some of the obstacles they encounter along the way may be a bit too frightening for very small children. They include the intimidating bounty hunter, Dennis (Alec Baldwin, a great choice for his gravelly growl), who drives a motorcycle and tries to step on SpongeBob and Patrick with his giant, spiked boots. The duo also must cross a dark chasm that’s teeming with monsters (at this point, a little girl at the screening I attended demanded that her mom escort her out of the theater, and some other kids were crying).

These moments don’t last too long, though. And soon SpongeBob and Patrick find themselves integrated into the live-action world above the ocean’s surface in a clever way that’s visually seamless. (The presence of David Hasselhoff, playing himself in full “Baywatch” rescue mode, should be funnier, though. It’s actually kinda awkward and creepy.)

Again, this won’t matter to children. They’ll just be happy to see their familiar friends, and their parents will be happy to see that SpongeBob has learned a lesson about the importance of liking himself for who he is: a goofy kid.