Eric Clapton is one of my personal guitar heroes, and there was a time when songs from his catalog dominated my personal musical playlist (often on those archaic devices known as “Walkmans”). I had been past this period for some time when I tuned midway into a song on the radio and thought to myself, “Man, this guy sounds like he’s doing a bad Eric Clapton impersonation.” You can imagine my dismay when the announcer said afterwards that the artist was, in fact, Eric Clapton.
Unfortunately, I have the same feeling watching SpongeBob SquarePants: The Great Patty Caper on DVD, except that I’ve never actually watched SpongeBob SquarePants regularly. The sense that I’m watching someone doing a bad impersonation of himself comes mostly from the adoration that the show gets from its legions of fans and the fact that a number of its alumni have gone on to create their own shows that are often far better than even the best that this latest DVD Nickelodeon can offer.
Comparing the best episodes on this disc (“Stuck in the Wringer” and “Model Sponge”) to any of the weaker ones (the other five) illuminates the two major problems I have with the show at this point in its life. “Wringer” establishes its core problem right away, as SpongeBob gets stuck in the wringer he uses to dry himself, and Patrick helpfully glues him into it permanently. The rest of the episode’s running time is spent showing how being stuck in a giant wringer causes SpongeBob grief. Similarly, “Model Sponge” may start with the sitcom stand-by of misunderstanding something secretly overheard, as SpongeBob believes Mr. Krabs is going to fire him. But from there, the episode spins off into inspired madness as SpongeBob tries a variety of jobs before settling on being a sponge model for advertising, with gloriously gross results. Both of these episodes are simple and they’re funny—it doesn’t take long to get them started and they can happily propagate under their own steam. Sure, toilet humor and pratfalls like getting stuck in doors or thrown out of amusement park Tilt-a-Whirls have been drawing laughs from audiences for decades, but the old standbys are old standbys for a reason. It’s things like that drew laughs out of me.
In contrast, the other episodes tend to waste far too much time on setups that don’t really go anywhere. The title episode is emblematic in this regard, carefully crafting a scenario that doesn’t really lend itself to anything funny naturally. “The Great Patty Caper” starts with Mr. Krabs deciding that he’s going to send away the secret formula for Krabby Patties for safe keeping from the larcenous clutches of Plankton. Unfortunately, neither he nor SpongeBob think to read the formula before sending it away, so SpongeBob and Patrick are dispatched to get the formula back. Of course, Plankton follows, aiming to steal the formula once and for all, and mayhem ensues. It takes the episode way too long to establish all that plot, and that’s all time that’s not spent making us laugh very much. Once SpongeBob and Patrick are on the train, we have to sit through a bunch of really forced situations where there’s a lot of flapping and activity and nonsense, but very very few laughs. The same thing happens in all the other episodes (which are also far too predominated by “Plankton tries to steal the Krabby Patty formula” formula). There are all the trappings of mayhem, but none of the effects of the genuine article. I couldn’t even muster up a sympathy laugh for most of these episodes.
I must admit that I found the new Backyardigans: We Arrrr Pirates! to be far more entertaining and enjoyable, despite its target pre-school audience. The cool thing about The Backyardigans is that I never feel like it’s talking down to its audience (like, say, Dora the Explorer), and it doesn’t attempt to do much more than provide colorful musical entertainment for about 20 minutes. The four episodes on this DVD provide that in spades, with half of them fitting in with the piratical theme of the title, and one more that stays in keeping with nautical themes.
In “Pirate Camp,” Uniqua and Pablo go to Pirate Camp (run by the pirate captain Austin), where they have to learn how to have the right “pirat-titude” to swashbuckle and sail the seven seas. There’s a ghost captain, Tasha, who threatens to tickle any comers, and moans about her lost red boot, and then a lot of running around and silliness, but it’s all done with charm and good humor. “Pirate Treasure” pits Uniqua and Austin against Pablo and Tyrone as they each seek their fortunes, with each possessing one-half of the same pirate treasure map. No prizes for guessing how this problem will be solved, and yet it’s still fun to watch them do it. “Sinbad Sails Alone” is only loosely based on the famed sailor of Arabian Nights fame, but is worth it for the clever chase sequence involving the Medusa Tasha. Finally, “The Tale of the Not-So-Nice Dragon” is a follow-up to “Tale of the Mighty Knights,” with much derring-do and pleasant nonsense as the Flighty Fairy Tasha and Grabbing Goblin Austin must save King Pablo and his Mighty Knights from the Not-So-Nice Dragon of the title.
One of the best things about The Backyardigans is the way they manage to write several new songs for each new episode, doing a marvelous job of aping a particular style almost perfectly. Any show that will introduce kids to the wonders of crunchy surf guitar garage band music (as “Pirate Camp” does) wins a special place in my heart, and the pseudo-island music and mambo driving “Pirate Treasure” and “Sinbad Sails Alone” are tremendous fun as well. The cool tunes are also mated to the show’s trademark dance sequences, which are impressive enough to look like they were motion-captured but are entirely keyframe animated from reference videos. As time goes on, I find I enjoy The Backyardigans more and more.
Both of these DVDs are pretty standard fare from Nickelodeon. After a set of forced trailers (which can be skipped via the “Next” button but not avoided altogether), you get a simple menu and a disc interface that begins playing automatically if you don’t do anything. Video and audio quality are excellent, with both shows getting full-frame presentation. There are no chapter stops within episodes for either one of these DVDs, although this really only presents an annoyance on The Backyardigans: We Arrrr Pirates, as you have to either sit through or manually fast-forward past the credits. The Backyardigans comes with no special features; The Great Patty Caper comes with 3 SpongeBob “short films,” and I have to admit that the third short, “Gumshoe Squarepants,” managed to make me laugh harder and longer than anything else on the DVD.
To be honest, if the episodes on SpongeBob SquarePants: The Great Patty Caper were the inaugural episodes of a new animated sitcom, I probably wouldn’t bother to tune in again. At best, I’d say there’s potential there, but today it seems that shows like Chowder, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, and Adventure Time are out-SpongeBob-ing SpongeBob (and, it must be noted, two out of three were created by SpongeBob alumni). For entertainment value, my money’s on the pre-school gang over the porifera.
However, I also think Eric Clapton’s gotten better (sometimes) since that disappointing moment on the radio, so maybe there’s hope for the sponge yet.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review mentioned the “motion-captured CGI” dance sequences, but Backyardigans director Dave Palmer let us know that only the pilot to the show used mocap. The rest of the episodes are traditionally key-framed from video reference.