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      The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water Review

      The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water poster

      The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water

      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      There's a new "SpongeBob" movie out, "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water." It's passable. The trade publication Variety predicts it will be "equally popular among the franchise's key grade-schooler and head-shop-owner demographics," and that sounds right to me.

      But I've always found SpongeBob's world terrifying, and while I'm probably overreacting, well, that's in the spirit of the fry-cook protagonist himself.

      "SpongeBob SquarePants" made its Nickelodeon TV debut in 1999, a year before my son was born. Like millions of kids, he was into it for a while, and now my stepson, who's 5, has taken up the torch. The strange thing about the show is how little actual laughter you hear in its vicinity. The tone, sensibility and rhythms of life in Bikini Bottom are relentlessly manic-depressive. Try Googling "SpongeBob" and "manic-depression" sometime, and see just how many people out there are somewhat ... haunted, I suppose, by the show.

      Kids, I think, aren't so much amused by "SpongeBob" as they are gripped by its cheerfully malignant depiction of life as a series of no-win negotiations between employer (Mr. Krabs) and employee (SpongeBob); between pushy, suffocating optimist (SpongeBob) and morose, insular pessimist (Squidward); between starry-eyed naif (SpongeBob) and the dumbest starfish around (Patrick); and so on.

      The tyranny of the mob rules the day in Bikini Bottom. Side characters, including the failed, revenge-minded restaurateur Plankton, are pushed to the edge of desperation and violence every minute. It's a typical animated series in that respect, and series creator Stephen Hillenburg's undersea world has many champions, up to and including President Barack Obama. For me, there's a little too much face-ripping, too many mutilation jokes, and I have found as a parent that no combination of blenders, power drills and malfunctioning smoke alarms can compete with SpongeBob's infamous cackle.

      The series is the generator behind an $8 billion merchandising revenue stream. The latest in that stream, "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water," follows the 2004 feature film called "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie." It comes from director Paul Tibbitt, a key series staffer over the years, and it does the job in its noisy, aggravating way.

      The plot honors the series' key themes. Plankton is still after Mr. Krabs' secret formula for Krabby Patties. For a longish stretch, "Sponge Out of Water" envisions Bikini Bottom as a post-apocalyptic "Mad Max" universe, which means we get to see some unlikely characters in whips-and-chains gear, just in time for "Fifty Shades of Grey."

      Antonio Banderas narrates the story to a flock of talking sea gulls, and his pirate character has insidious food-truck ambitions. Not quite in sync with its own marketing campaign, "Sponge Out of Water" doesn't deliver SpongeBob and the gang to the "real," non-animated world until quite late in the film, which runs a reasonable-sounding 92 minutes. Yet those 92 feel like more than enough. The real-world excursion is plenty busy, but only occasionally clever. (There's a shot of the tiny characters pedaling a human-sized bike that works very nicely.)

      Someday I may read the 2011 University of Virginia study published in the journal Pediatrics. It points to the TV show and its probable causation of "short-term disruptions in mental function and attention span" among preschool audiences. I experienced similar disruptions watching "Sponge out of Water" -- disruptions I generally enjoy with the right movie, a funnier one than this.

      MPAA rating: PG (for mild action and rude humor).

      Running time: 1:32.

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