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Friday, April 21, 2006


The silly world of SpongeBob

OK, class, quiz time: Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? No takers? OK, here's a hint: Absorbent and yellow and porous is he!

News photo
SpongeBob SquarePants (left) and his creator, Stephen Hillenburg.

You may still be stumped, but trust me, show this to anyone under the age of 11 and they'll be screaming the answer at you: SpongeBob SquarePants!

"SpongeBob," the wackiest, wildest cartoon on the Nickelodeon channel, was created in 1999 by marine biologist-turned-animator Stephen Hillenburg. The show has seen four successful seasons on Nickelodeon, charming the kids with its hyperactive, flush-the-Ritalin attitude, but also making fans of many parents as well, who can appreciate the series' absurd, over-the-top vibe.

"We're always aiming for storytelling that feels a bit surreal," says Hillenburg, in Tokyo recently to promote the belated release here of the feature-length "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie." (It was released right before "The Incredibles" in the United States, back in 2004.)

"Surreal," though, hardly does justice to the amped-up craziness Hillenburg and his cohorts have been throwing up on the screen. Their cartoon underwater world features a super-genki sea-sponge, SpongeBob, and his doofus starfish friend, Patrick Star. The duo like to go jellyfish hunting -- a painful sport -- or gorge themselves silly on "Goofy Goober" ice-cream. Their best friend is Sandy, a squirrel who lives underwater in a dome, and their nemesis is Squidward Tentacles, a grouchy know-it-all. The movie sees SpongeBob, who works at a fast-food joint called The Krusty Krab, trying to save his boss, Mr. Krabs, from an evil plot by the miniscule Plankton to steal Krabs' secret recipe.

The visual gags come fast and furious. When SpongeBob takes his morning shower, he crams a bar of soap into his head, inserts a hose and explodes in a blizzard of bubbles. The drawing style is classic Saturday-morning cartoon, but it feels like nobody was allowed to animate until they'd had at least four tall cappuccinos.

Unlike much contemporary animation, "SpongeBob" remains hand-drawn, but with the assistance of computers that scan the pencil drawings and color them digitally. While this is a big improvement over the old method, which involved shooting acetate cells, 24-per-second, "it's still physical labor, and it still takes a long time to animate something," says Hillenburg. He even suspended the TV series for over a year to concentrate entirely on the movie. "It's not like the computer magically does it for you. Animation just takes forever."

Much of the secret to SpongeBob's success lies with the instantly distinctive voice Tom Kenny created for the character. Hillenburg describes how he met Kenny working on the cartoon "Rocko's Modern Life."

"He stole the show," Hillenburg says. "Tom is a self-professed nerd. He's really like SpongeBob in some ways." Kenny hit the voice right off the mark, basing it on "some guys he heard trying out for Christmas elves."

Hillenburg had originally thought of using a sample of a dolphin squawk for SpongeBob's laugh, but Kenny's imitation of one proved better.

SpongeBob's naivete sets him apart from his more cynical contemporaries like Bart Simpson or Eric Cartman. The show's humor skews more toward the "idiots and falling anvils" type (as "Calvin & Hobbes" once put it), but that's not a bad thing. Hillenburg has mostly steered the show away from trendy pop-culture jokes, to give it a more timeless feel.

"We wanted the humor to come from the characters," said Hillenburg. "And their world -- you go down there to escape the world up here for a while. So when the crew would write jokes that would refer to American TV or culture, I'd just eliminate them because it just seemed odd that SpongeBob would know about it. The jokes that should belong on 'The Simpsons' stay there, because they do it well."

As such, the film is perfectly acceptable for the kids, despite certain "family values" busybodies griping about a "gay agenda," merely because SpongeBob and Patrick hold hands. Hillenburg laughs it off, saying "The motivation was silliness."

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