Screen gems...with M.V. Moorhead
DVD: The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie

The hero of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is, if nothing else, aptly named ó heís an anthropomorphic sponge.

He lives at the bottom of the sea (in a hollow pineapple), but he resembles a commercial sponge of the sort one would use in household cleaning much more than a sea sponge. Heís bright yellow and, more or less, square. So, of course, the trousers he wears are also square. That just stands to reason.

For those who may not have noticed all the merchandising, SpongeBob SquarePants has been a favorite in the Nickelodeon stable of cartoons since his TV debut in 1999, popular both with kids and with a devoted cult of older viewers as well. The nonsensical adventures of SpongeBob (voiced by Tom Kenny), along with his best friend, the slow-thinking starfish Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), his long-suffering coworker Squidward (Roger Bumpass), his money-loving boss Mr. Krab (Clancy Brown), and their evil nemesis Plankton (Doug Lawrence), unfold in a peculiarly appealing town called Bikini Bottom, nominally on the ocean floor but presented without a lot of marine realism: Fires are still possible, for instance.

SpongeBob himself is indomitably cheerful in the face of adversity. Heís a clown, but thereís nothing of the sad clown to him. As usual, where big-screen adaptations of TV shows are concerned, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is epic in its ambitions. Directors Stephen Hillenburg (who created the show), Sherm Cohen and Mark Osborne (who directs the live-action sequences) take our favorite EverySponge on that staple of the western narrative tradition, the coming-of-age road trip.

After losing a promotion to Squidward at the Krusty Krab, the restaurant where he works, even poor SpongeBob finds himself lapsing into a depression. But when Mr. Krabs is framed by his rival restaurateur Plankton of stealing the crown of King Neptune (Jeffrey Tambor), SpongeBob sees it as his opportunity to save his employer and prove that heís not as immature as Mr. Krabs thought he was.

He and Patrick head off on a dangerous odyssey to Shell City to retrieve the crown. Of course, they have all manner of adventures along the way, and are encouraged by King Neptuneís compassionate mermaid daughter Mindy (Scarlett Johansson).

The thing about the film is this: Itís just plain funny. Itís funny the way the great silent comedies are funny, or the best of the Warner Bros. cartoons are funny, or, I suppose, like the commedia dellíarte was funny back in Renaissance Italy.

SpongeBob and his fellow clowns earn belly laughs through the refreshingly honest externalization of human emotional states. 

When SpongeBob and Patrick are happy, their grins are explosive, but if they get scared or sad, they donít repress their feelings. They wail and howl and cry and pound on the ground, then curl into the fetal position in puddles of their own tears and rock back and forth.

Unlike many other cartoons (including some of the best), SpongeBob doesnít rely on a lot of verbal wit, and there are very few in-jokes as nudges to the adults, because they arenít needed.

SpongeBob isnít dumb or unsophisticated. Hillenburg and crew are highly skilled and precise in their effects. But it might be called pre-sophisticated. 

If it makes you laugh, youíll be laughing at the same gags the 7-year-old across the aisle is laughing at, and for the same reason, and at least as hard.

The DVD: Itís available in either widescreen or fullscreen editions. The Special Features include animatics (early semi-animated storyboards), a behind-the-scenes documentary most notable for its clever titleó-The Absorbing Tale behind The SpongeBob SquarePants Movieóand a Saving the Surf documentary about beachfront conservation. 

Best of all is a featurette called The Case of SpongeBob, in which Jean-Michel Cousteau (son of Jacque) and creator Stephen Hillenburg discuss the differences between the cartoon versions of these sea creatures and their real-life counterparts.

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is ridiculously rated PG, for some very mild off-color gags. Unless youíre a maniacal, reactionary prude, youíre likely to regard it as suitable family viewing.