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SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE, THE

Nickelodeon’s big-screen versions of its hit kiddie shows have been a pretty sorry lot, so one might be forgiven for not expecting much from “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.” But in the event the little picture proves a happy surprise–sprightly, colorful and fun. Not having seen the series, I can’t testify to the picture’s fidelity to it, but on its own this feature provides eighty minutes that children should enjoy and adults will find more charming than not.

When the movie opens SpongeBob’s boss Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) is opening a second Krusty Krab restaurant and our hero (Tom Kenny) fully expects to be named manager; his pal Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), a goofy starfish, is ready to celebrate big-time. Unfortunately Krabs promotes Bob’s neighbor Squidward (Rodger Bumpass) instead. But that’s not the worst of it: the evil Plankton (Mr. Lawrence), owner of the dumpy, unsuccessful rival eatery the Chum Bucket, aims to steal Krabs’ famous sandwich recipe by stealing the crown of arrogant King Neptune (Jeffrey Tambor), convincing him that Krabs is the thief, and then persuading the short-tempered monarch to do away with his rival. Fortunately sweet princess Mindy (Scarlett Johansson) persuades her father to give SpongeBob and Patrick six days to go the notorious Shell City, get back the crown and save Krabs. The mission leads to a series of episodic adventures for the duo (which vary in their humor quotient, of course), who must not only contend with the rarely-welcoming creatures they meet along the way but a thug named Dennis (Alec Baldwin) hired by Plankton to rub them out. The boys make it to Shell City, which turns out to be something quite different from what they expected, and get help returning to Bikini Bottom from none other than “Baywatch” star David Hasselhoff, who proves to be a champion swimmer indeed. But once returned they have to contend with the fact that Plankton’s evil schemes go far beyond the food-service industry into a megalomaniacal plot to rule their little world.

There are bits of this scenario that bear an uncomfortable resemblance to “Finding Nemo” (the whole Shell City business recalls the dental office doings in that Pixar picture), but the conventional animation here has a distinctive look of its own, and the writing has a good-natured tone that keeps things from dragging at this extended length. Familiarity with the characters will doubtlessly increase the enjoyment, but even the uninitiated should have a pleasant time.

“SpongeBob” does slip periodically. There are too many of the butt shots that seem obligatory in kiddie movies nowadays, and a few too many belches, too. The big sequence involving Hasselhoff goes on too long and isn’t nearly as funny as the makers obviously intended. And the repeated theme of “kid power”–at one point we even hear the cry of “Kids rule!”–has an unfortunate pandering tone. But for the most part “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” has an easygoing, gentle sweetness that doesn’t cloy, and should entertain family audiences in theatres nicely before taking up permanent residence on home video shelves.

THE INCREDIBLES

This latest Pixar-produced computer animation flick from Disney is as visually magnificent as you’d expect. From a purely technical perspective “The Incredibles” rivals the best of the genre–not only the company’s earlier efforts but the DreamWorks offerings like “Shrek,” too. The widescreen images are fluid and elegant and the backgrounds clean and occasionally amusing, in those respects even outshining its remarkable predecessors.

In terms of story, though, the picture isn’t nearly as impressive. “The Incredibles” is a send-up of the super-hero genre–a type of movie that’s been attempted plenty of times in the past, almost always unsuccessfully. This time around, it’s pulled off more cleverly than usual by writer-director Brad Bird (who also voices one of the characters), but the result still doesn’t have the sort of imagination and wit the best animated films possess. The premise is outlined in a prologue showing musclebound, self-assured Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) going through his super-hero paces despite the interference of nerdy fan-boy and would-be sidekick Buddy Pine (Jason Lee): one of the fellows he saves claims to have been injured in the process and sues him, starting a flood of litigation against all super-folk. To settle the claims, the government forces all the heroes into a protection program, requiring them to live ordinary lives and to refrain from using their powers anymore.

When we find him fifteen years later, Mr. Incredible is lumbering malcontent Bob Parr, who has a miserably unfulfilling job at an insurance firm and rides around in a car a few sizes too small for his huge frame. He lives a suburban life with wife Helen (Holly Hunter), who was once the bouncy Elastigirl, and has three kids, a gurgling infant named Jack Jack and two older siblings who have inherited powers they have to hide, too. The older is shy, dark-haired Violet (Sarah Vowell), who can turn invisible and create force fields, and the younger a precocious little blonde boy, Dash (Spencer Fox), who’s a miniature version of The Flash.

The only diversion that Bob gets from the familial bickering is an occasional night out with his old super-hero buddy Lucius Best (Samuel L. Jackson), also known as Frozone, a kind of good-guy Mr. Freeze. The two pretend to go bowling, but actually engage in surreptitious heroics to recall the old days. The routine changes, though, when Bob is fired from his job after manhandling his smarmy boss (Wallace Shawn), and is recruited to don his tights again as a “product tester” for a weapons firm owned by a mysterious billionaire. The position, however, proves to be a ruse devised by the inevitable master villain Syndrome–who bears a close resemblance to Jim Carrey’s Riddler, and whose front-woman is slinky Mirage (Elizabeth Pena)–to destroy all the hidden super-heroes and, in the usual phrase, conquer the world. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal the identity of this fearsome foe, but he does have a connection to Mr. Incredible’s past and a reason as plausible for his rage as the ones usually used in comic-book stories. Suffice it to say that in order to defeat him Mr. Incredible must summon up all his strength, Frozone has to come out of retirement, and Bob’s family must don costumes and employ their powers, too. And though this doesn’t constitute much of a spoiler, rest assured the world isn’t destroyed.

This scenario isn’t terribly inventive, and although Bird scatters sporadic witticisms throughout, both verbal and visual, most of them are on peripheral matters (like the Parrs’ home life and Helen’s ability to twist herself into the most unusual but useful shapes). The central plot is actually played straighter than one might expect, and includes a remarkably high quotient of high-octane violence (explosions, shots of characters being slammed about and plenty of shooting); the picture certainly deserves its PG rating, and may well be too intense for younger kids. The fact that the characters involved are drawn rather than real makes some difference, of course, but overall the latter portion of the picture isn’t really much watered down from the sort of stuff found in the “Batman” flicks, and the insertion of the younger Parrs into the equation also gives it the feel of a more down-and-dirty “Spy Kid”-dish offering. Those aren’t the best models for a Pixar presentation, and one gets the feeling that “The Incredibles” could easily have been made as a live-action feature starring somebody like Tim Allen–a sort of “Galaxy Quest” clone. And if you set aside the amazing CGI imaging, like that film it’s moderately engaging but hardly a classic.

Nonetheless, there are still those wonderful visuals, and the voice cast is perfectly fine too, although Bird has reserved for himself the best part–that of Edna Mode, or “E,” a thickly-accented costume designer who’s a near-ringer for Linda Hunt. The picture will surely bring in a ton of money, not only in ticket sales but in the later DVD market. That’s in spite of the fact that it’s decidedly inferior to Bird’s earlier effort, the conventionally-animated “Iron Giant,” which he co-wrote with Tim McCanlies, which was not a financial success. Go figure.