I saw The
SpongeBob SquarePants Movie early one recent afternoon,
at a private screening. It wasn't supposed to be a private screening,
mind you, it just worked out that way. I was the only person in
the movie, my head was buzzing with questionsquestions inspired
by the previews, as it happens, rather than by the feature. Why
will Pooh's Heffalump Movie, a new Disney excrescence, be
showing, as a title card puts it, "only in theatres"
(emphasis supplied)? Why not "only in theaters"?
Is this some subtle appeal to snobbery? Are we supposed to connect
that vaguely British spelling with Winnie the Pooh's upper-crust
The most important such question: why would anyone whose brain
has not been surgically removed and replaced with mashed potatoes
consider for a second going to see the film called Racing Stripes?
To judge from the preview, it's a disgusting Babe-like concoction
about a zebra that becomes a race horse, in which real animals with
computer-manipulated mouths speak with the voices of movie stars.
Has the world been waiting to hear Dustin Hoffman as the voice of
Oh, yes, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. I thought it went
straight downhill, as well as underwater, after the funny opening
business with live-action pirates. It's an honest-to-goodness television
cartoon, folks, just on a bigger screen, and that means, ipso
facto, it almost certainly could never amount to much.
I say that not out of snobbery where TV in general is concerned,
but from the belief that TV is a rigorous medium in its way. After
almost sixty years of the medium's existence as a vehicle for popular
entertainment, I think it's clear that it's possible to do only
a few things really well for television. Sports is one; situation
comedy is another. A Seinfeld movie would be a ridiculous
ideaI don't think anyone has ever seriously suggested onebut
a self-contained Seinfeld half hour could be heavenly, and
On the other hand, I can't think of a TV western that was ever
much good, compared with the best big-screen specimens, and the
same is true of TV animation, even the best of it, like The Simpsons.
(Turn the sound off during a Simpsons episode and there's
not much to laugh at.) Jay Ward, early Hanna-Barbera, all the things
usually cited as exceptional TV cartoonsthey really weren't
all that good to begin with, except by comparison with the even
worse stuff surrounding them, and they haven't held up. I watched
those cartoons when they were new, and I liked them a lot, but watching
Rocky and His Friends or Huckleberry Hound
now is painful. I have higher hopes for The Simpsons' durability,
but not much higher.
Ultimately, it all comes back to the animation. There is a threshold
below which a character's movement is so conspicuously mechanicalso
obviously the product of some industrial process, rather than movement
initiated by the character itselfthat interest in the character
as character is unavoidably defeated. Interest has to light elsewhere,
on the dialogue particularly. Unless its author is someone like
Oscar Wilde, though, witty dialogue depends heavily on its cultural
context, and so it tends to go bad about as quickly as fresh milk.
Michael Maltese was a great cartoon writer, but you can't tell it
from his Hanna-Barbera work; his dialogue is much funnier at Warner
Bros., where Chuck Jones's drawings are doing the heaviest lifting.
Television animation, like stop-motion animation and computer animation,
suffers from a partial paralysis that even someone as gifted as
Brad Bird can finesse but not quite defeat. That paralysis has different
origins; in TV animation it has always originated in tight budgets
and the resulting need to conserve drawings, whereas in stop-motion
and computer animation it's the byproduct of manipulating solid
forms that by their nature can't admit of much flexibility. (How
can a computer-animated character go off-model for expressive purposes,
even very briefly, after perhaps a year of effort has gone into
determining what on-model means? Being on-model is the very essence
of a computer-animated character's existence.) But such limitations
on freedom of movementlimitations that originate externally,
rather than in an artist's decisionsare always debilitating,
wherever they come from.
If you've seen the Disneyland TV show called "An Adventure
in Art," you'll recall that Walt Disney emphasizes the role
played in the life of the Disney studio by Robert Henri's 1923 book
called The Art Spirit-really a sort of commonplace
book, patched together from Henri's lectures and speeches. I can't
recall seeing references to the book in any of the thousands of
Disney documents I've read, but no doubt there are some; and certainly
the book has echoes in the studio's practices in the thirties and
forties. Henri speaks of brush strokes, for example, in terms that
evoke the best drawn animation: "Strokes which move in unison,
rhythms, continuities throughout the work; that interplay, that
slightly or fully complement each other."
Like most TV cartoons these days, The SpongeBob SquarePants
Movie was animated in one or more of the Asian cartoon factories.
I can recall only one moment in the film when I sensed the life-giving
flow of the drawn line in the animation of the characters (it happens
when one huge fish is devouring another). Most of the artwork has
a kitschy brightness I associate with the Hanna-Barbera output of
the seventies. As for the writing, there is in it scarcely even
the pretense of wittiness as it's usually conceived. What there
is instead, as in the TV show, is silliness, aggressively and in
abundanceand that's OK, in principle. If a silly movie provides
a few great belly laughs, it justifies its existence, no matter
how dumb most of it is; I remember Airplane with a smile,
for just that reason. Perhaps other people found those belly laughs
in The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (and perhaps seeing it
in an empty theater wasn't fair to the film), but I could muster
only an occasional smile.
The one striking thing about SpongeBob SquarePants, movie
and TV show, is how thoroughly its creator, Stephen Hillenburg,
has absorbed the influence of John Kricfalusi's original Ren
& Stimpy, to my mind one of the very few TV cartoons that
demands serious attention. The Kricfalusi influence shows up in
drawings that are sometimes physically extremebulging eyeballs,
scraggly teethcompared with the characters' usual appearance.
(The movie has its fart and bathroom gags, too, but those are so
ubiquitous now in children's films that it's hard to give John K.
much credit or blame for them.)
With Kricfalusi, though, there was no "usual appearance"
for his characters, and his drawings always seemed to be straining
at the leash. Watching Ren & Stimpy was as scary and
exciting as being trapped in an elevator with someone suffering
from a particularly severe case of Tourette's syndromethere
was always the sense that some sickening obscene outburst lay just
ahead. (In his newest
R&S cartoons, the outbursts have come, and they're just
as sickeningand depressingas I might have feared.) There's
no mistaking Stephen Hillenburg for a mental case, though; he's
just a nice boy who's havin' fun talkin' a little dirty.
I've never been quite clear on why SpongeBob was a favorite
in the gay community, but maybe I've finally figured it out. The
glimpse of SpongeBob's yellow butt is a false clue, I think, as
is even the scene in which SpongeBob's starfish friend Patrick carries
a SpongeBob banner clenched in his buttocks. Rather, SpongeBob and
Patrick seem to be analogues for those unattractive, clueless fanboys
who always manage to find one another, usually at a comic-book store
or a comics convention. You can all too easily imagine how these
two almost-sexless characters could accidentally start playing with
each other's privates and eventually turn into flaming queensall
by mistake! Guys, guys, you're really straight!
That's sort of funny, I suppose. But I sure was glad to see the
pirates come back, after the end credits. If those clowns turn up
in a movie of their own, I'll buy a ticket. But only if there's
no preview of Racing Stripes on the program. Once is enough.
[Posted December 11, 2004]