Vincent Alexander, who identifies himself as a fifteen-year-old cartoonist, wrote in response to my 2004 review of The Spongebob Squarepants Movie: I have always been a big fan of classic cartoons. I like a lot of varying styles, but my great love is for masters like Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Bob Clampett. I really appreciate your study of great animation, and the interviews posted on your site are a blessing to cartoon nuts everywhere.
All that being said, I read one of your writings that you posted a few years ago that I very much disagreed with. Please know that no malice is intended in this letter, and I have great respect for you and your work. I just don't see your viewpoint and I would like to give you mine.
I'm writing in response to your review of The Spongebob Squarepants Movie. I really felt that you missed the point of the feature. It's a fun and silly movie, and it seems to me that you went at it in a much too serious and over-analyzed manner. It's only goal was to be funny, and it succeeds in that amazingly well.
In your review, you dismissed the animation in the movie as television quality, and thus not comparable to theatrical animation in its golden age. While I agree that this isn't Fantasia, I thought the drawings were perfect for the film. They are all wild and comedic, and after all, this is a wild and comedic movie. The monsters that Spongebob and Patrick come across in the Now That We're Men song are incredibly designed, and each expression that Spongebob makes is both funny and shows his mood quite accurately. The drawings aren't just deranged for the sake of being deranged, which is what I get out of a lot of Ren & Stimpy artwork. They allow you to feel with the character, while at the same time laughing at them.
The animation itself may not have the ingenious subtleties of Chuck Jones's work, or the free-wheeling, rubbery movement of a Clampett film, but neither of these styles would fit in Spongebob. If you animated Rabbit Seasoning like The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, the whole thing would be ruined. It would seem weird and the visuals wouldn't support the humor. And, obviously, the same goes the other way around. Similarly, if you think about the gags in Spongebob, they would not fit with any other animation style that I can think of, no matter how well-drawn. The "conspicuously mechanical" movement not only looks good in this case, but feels right. True, I watched the movie for enjoyment, not study, but it never occurred to me once throughout the film that Spongebob and Patrick weren't alive. And I still have the impression that they are.
And then you went on to say, "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 abundance." Again, I disagree. It's certainly silly, as you said, but you fail to mention that to make an effectively silly cartoon it has to be EXTREMELY witty. A lot of cartoons try to be silly and fail miserably (My Gym Partner's a Monkey, The Replacements, Timon & Pumbaa, etc.), but it takes real talent—dare I say, genius—to make a film that succeeds on the levels of humor and nonsense. A Dr. Seuss book, for example, is not stupid, but instead brilliantly conceived in every way. Silly, of course, but that works in its favor. And I think the same goes for the sponge. It really is witty, for nothing other than wit could make me laugh as hard as I did over the course of the movie. Whether it was Spongebob and Patrick trying to avoid singing their favorite theme song, gallavanting through certain peril because of their new mustaches, or getting drunk at an ice cream shop, the whole movie, for me, was an endless stream of laughter. A lot of the wildest gags, like the king getting hair restorer in his eyes, for instance, reminded me distinctly of Tex Avery. Witty? In my opinion, definitely.
And as for the Jon Kricfaulsi influence, I'd say it's pretty light. The Kricfalusi-esque "bulging eyeballs" and "scraggly teeth" are very common cartoon characteristics, and distortion of the original character designs is probably just a way of making it look funnier, rather than any particular Ren & Stimpy influence. And there really isn't much bathroom humor in this movie; surprisingly little compared to just about any other comedy made in the past ten years. And both Spongebob and Ren & Stimpy are insane, but in very different ways. Kricfalusi's creations are insane in a demented and disturbed kind of way, whereas the sponge is insane in a more cheerfully absurd manner. You can choose for yourself which is more to your liking, but I'd take the latter any day. And also unlike Ren & Stimpy, Spongebob is clearly not gay. There's no need even trying to analyze that, because the whole debate was merely brought up to bring controversy to a popular cartoon character. I don't think it goes much deeper than that.
And lastly, there are so many wonderful aspects of the film that you didn't even touch on. One thing that was blatantly left out is the extreme talent of the voice actors. Tom Kenny truly is one of the greats, and his energy is hard to match. The voices of Patrick, Squidward and Mr. Krabs are all wonderful as well, but in many ways, I think Mr. Lawrence, as the evil Plankton, steals the show. His gleeful cruelty and booming fury truly ranks Plankton as one of the greatest— if not one of the more threatening—animated villains. And of course, there are hundreds of individual drawings and gags that deserve attention, but that would take much too long. And none of this discussion can hold a candle to the entertainment of actually watching the movie, which I would suggest you do again with a more open mind. Ranking this film on the basis of sheer laughter, I'd say it's one of the greatest movies of all time. And what could be a better judge than laughter?
Thanks for your time (if you did indeed get through all of that) and keep watching cartoons!
MB replies: I've re-read my review, but I've not seen the movie again, so I'm at a disadvantage. Many of Vincent's points strike me as indisputable—certainly there's a difference between good and bad silliness (a lot of TV cartoons fall on the "bad" side of the line, and Spongebob has a better claim than most to be on the "good" side), and it's hard to quarrel with the distinction he draws between the Spongebob and Ren & Stimpy TV shows. Likewise, the animation in the Spongebob Squarepants Movie is certainly more appropriate to that film than anything Clampett-like. The "conspicuously mechanical" animation may indeed "feel right." The question is, if that kind of animation "feels right," just how good can the cartoon be? Not very good, in my opinion, but here we're entering the murky region where differences of taste become increasingly important.
[Posted March 7, 2008]