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"SpongeBob" and "Fanboy": Familiarity, Meet Contempt

When you’ve been making SpongeBob SquarePants cartoons for ten years, I suppose it’s okay if you start phoning it in. And since anniversary specials are almost never all that special, I don’t guess there’s anything wrong when you decide to goof off instead of making one.

Okay, obviously I don’t know that the makers of SpongeBob SquarePants: Truth or Square regarded their assignment with a sigh, rolled up their sleeves, and then just threw something together before lunch. But I’d like to think they didn’t work hard at it; it’s nicer than thinking this flabby exercise was the best they could do.

Describing the story to any SpongeBob SquarePants is usually an exercise in futility, but the plot here is so vaporous it’s hardly worth the effort. The Krusty Krab is celebrating its own anniversary, but the work crew (that’s SpongeBob, Squidward, Mr. Krabs, and Patrick, who has been taken on temporarily as a bouncer), get lost in the restaurant’s complex duct work. Each time they come to a dead end, someone says something that sets off some fake flashbacks. It’s the Family Guy-ization of SpongeBob.

So the cartoon rises and falls on the quality of these flashbacks. Alas, there’s nothing much to them. Only one really registered with me: SpongeBob’s marriage to Sandy Cheeks, and that’s because it ends with a gag (maybe) inspired by the surrealist movie The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. (But that, surely, says more about me than it says about the special.) The rest of it, I suppose, is modestly entertaining as it passes with zombie-like passivity before your eyes.

Interwoven with the cartoon is a rambling, live-action story about Patchy the Pirate trying to put together his own anniversary special for the sponge. These sections are, at least, are pleasantly and buoyantly nonsensical, and are further lifted by cameos from such celebrities as Tina Fey, Will Ferrell, Colin Ferguson, and Robin Williams. Might I suggest, though, that something has gone awry when Patchy’s live-action antics overshadow SpongeBob’s animated ones?

SpongeBob: Truth or Square will premiere on Nickelodeon on Friday, November 6, at 9:00pm (ET/PT). It will then be released to DVD with four other SpongeBob cartoons. “Porous Pockets” puts Patrick at the center of some funny gags, but it’s hard to watch SpongeBob become rich and spoiled without thinking there’s a lesson there for the franchise. “Choir Boys” is another chapter in the persecution of Squidward, this time without any real laughter. “Krusty Krushers” is a wrestling cartoon that doesn’t do anything fresh with a very old notion. Finally, “The Card” puts SpongeBob through slow, entertaining torture as he watches Patrick unwittingly abuse a very valuable trading card.

The DVD comes with two special features: karaoke music videos for the songs “We’ve Got Scurvy” (from Truth or Square), “Campfire Song Song” and “F.U.N.” There’s also a behind-the-scenes featurette about the making of the special, stop-motion sequence that opens Truth or Square. That sequence is very stylish, by the way. But apparently it was designed and produced by an independent company.

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Following Truth or Square Nickelodeon will premiere a new CG-animated comedy show, Fanboy and Chum Chum. The title characters are grade schoolers who lack super powers but dress up in tights and masks, and geek out the way young nerdlings are presumed to do. “Wiz Boy” introduces them to Kyle “The Conjuror,” a prepubescent-Voldemort type expelled from a wizarding school. Naturally, they drive him batty by pretending they also have magical powers. In “Trading Day” Fanboy agrees to trade his sidekick to another student for a day in return for her toy robot.

There is nothing very fresh or funny in the writing of these episodes, but at least they show off non-standard character designs and facial expressions, and they don’t look like every other CGI movie or television show out there. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the animation, which is full of the “snappy” poses and movements we’ve seen in so many other places. And, like other animated sitcoms, it mistakes emphatic, shouted dialogue for wit.

The series takes up its regular time slot on Saturday, November 7, at 11:30am (ET/PT).

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