Ever since he became a so-called “pop culture phenomenon”, I’ve had trouble placing SpongeBob Squarepants. So I’m going to begin my review of this DVD-release of the feature-length episode, Atlantis Squarepants, with a question: Who is SpongeBob‘s target audience? Is it, like its spiritual predecessors Ren & Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life, a show for teenagers and young adults? Or should it be ranked alongside Nickelodeon’s other flagship show, Rugrats, as a series that is ostensibly for kids but has broad crossover appeal for adults? Or should we look outside Nickelodeon for comparisons to Cartoon Cartoons and the likes of I Am Weasel or The Power Puff Girls: shows that, superficially, look like they are aimed at younger audiences but which contain so many cultural references and borderline risqué innuendos that they must really be counted as adult shows? I ask this question for a very good reason, because its answer must ultimately dictate how something like Atlantis Squarepants must be assessed.
Before all that, let me get through the essentials. Atlantis Squarepants is a 45-minute TV movie that premiered in the US in November 2007 and received a DVD release shortly afterwards. (A fairly decent and spoiler-free plot summary can be found here.) The DVD also contains six regular episodes of the show from season five (“Money Talks”, “The Krusty Sponge”, “SpongeBob vs. The Patty Gadget”, “Sing a Song of Patrick”, “Slimy Dancing”, and “Picture Day”) and a couple of brief but entertaining “making of” special features, including “Inside the SpongeBob Animation Studios” (1.30) and “Behind the Pants: The Making of Atlantis Squarepants” (11.30).
Let me start by saying that this “film” (is a 45-minute episode really a film?) has garnered some unusually negative reactions from hardcore fans and sneering professionals alike. After looking at Tom Shales’s scathing review, it’s time to return to the question I posed at the top of this piece: Who is its target audience? It’s well known that a significant portion of viewers both in the US and the UK are adults; surely then, Shales concludes, this is partially aimed at adults. He seems to think that the secret to SpongeBob‘s success is the show’s “satirical shenanigans”. Having seen the program off and on since 1999, I find myself scratching my head as to what he means. Is SpongeBob Squarepants really satirical? Yes, it’s surreal to the point of absurdism, but since when does that constitute satire? I would suggest that it is the lunacy, the non-sequitur humour, and Spongebob’s lovable/loathsome adoration of the inane and plainly mundane that are the secret to his success—the show has a kind of perverse fascination with the stunningly everyday that people can relate to and laugh at. This is not and never has been highbrow satire, which is to say that I think that children and adults enjoy Spongebob for largely the same reasons.
That said, Atlantis Squarepants does lay on the cultural references pretty thickly: the central premise, which has Lord Royal Highness (voiced by David Bowie, who is unrecognisable and brilliant in the role—no singing, though!) showing the characters around the Lost City, bears a strong resemblance to The Wizard of Oz, which is underlined by Patchy the Pirate’s subplot (shot in zany real life filmed segments) as he clicks his heels trying to find “Enrico” (his home?). And then there’s the manner in which the tour party slowly diminishes as characters get caught up in particular areas of interest (not giving too much away, but Mr. Krabs likes the big mountain of gold, Sandy likes the Hall of Science, and Squidward likes the Art Gallery), which is reminiscent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The numerous songs also parody a number of different musical styles ranging from Disney romance to 60s psychedelic rock. And the different coloured eyes for Bowie’s character were a nice touch for fans of the Thin White Duke (like me). However, as a pastiche of the fantasy-musical genre, Shales is right, this feature fails abysmally. It was all done much better and more cleverly in South Park‘s “Imaginationland”. But is it really fair to judge SpongeBob by the same criteria as South Park? I think not.
Weak parody aside, Atlantis Squarepants has much to recommend it. The non-animated sequences featuring Patchy the Pirate (played by SpongeBob’s VA, Tom Kenny) are hilarious in their total randomness, and Kenny’s outrageous overacting is a delight in itself. The first scene of the film sees Patchy “driving” a small boat down a motorway, but he finds himself stuck in traffic and fretting over potentially missing the new SpongeBob episode after he receives a phone call from his parrot! Later, in another scene, he is left stranded and starving in the desert. After a trippy hallucination about his beloved “Enrico” (seemingly a park with a bench in it), a puppet parrot (on strings) offers him a sandwich, which, although he’s apparently dying, he rejects because he doesn’t like mayo! It’s quite “out there”.
Some of the animated sequences are similarly inspired. When Mr. Krabs sees the room of money, he bursts into song and we are treated to a sequence drawn in the style and colour of paper money. Even more memorable, in the Hall of Science, the characters enter a machine and we’re suddenly transported to the world of 16-bit gaming. Skidward’s trawl through some famous art classics is also great and features probably the film’s lyrical highlight: “Ask your Mama or your Dada/ To tell you about the eh … schism/ Between Minimalism and Cubism”. What was I saying about SpongeBob not being highbrow again?
Atlantis Squarepants is not a masterpiece, but neither does it deserve the awful reputation it seems to have. I think it is a mistake to take SpongeBob as seriously as certain critics seem to; it is almost inevitable that after almost a decade of success that talk of “jumping the shark” will abound. But, as the remaining six shorts on the disc attest, this series has always been first and foremost about surreal silliness, the sort that punctures pomposity. The reviewer on IMDB who wrote “Spongebob has been dying a slow death since 2004 … now it’s just another cartoon that helps dumb down America” should take note. Besides, since when does a cartoon that name-checks Dadaism and Cubism count as “dumbing down”?