He Lives in a Pineapple, but Then What?

Stephen Hillenburg, the "SpongeBob SquarePants" creator, worried about turning the series into a film: "To do a 75-minute movie about SpongeBob wanting to make some jellyfish jelly would be a mistake."

by David Edelstein
The New York Times
Sun., Nov. 7, 2004

Burbank, Calif.

Eleven minutes: such a piquant unit of time. Shortish, but plenty long enough for SpongeBob SquarePants to bound out of his undersea bed; feed his pet snail, Gary; leave his pineapple house in Bikini Bottom; bid a cheery good morning to his imbecile buddy, Patrick the starfish, emerging from under his rock; and make happy tracks to the Krusty Krab, a fast-food restaurant where SpongeBob loves loves loves serving trademark Krabby Patties, even if the avaricious owner crab and killjoy squid co-worker find his happy-go-lucky enthusiasm for minimum-wage drudgery bizarre and annoying.

Ever since the late 90's, when the marine-biologist-turned-animator Stephen Hillenburg approached Nickelodeon with his flamboyantly unreal nautical gagfest featuring the ultimate childlike optimist, 11 minutes have been jim-dandy for putting a single daft premise through its paces: say, SpongeBob ripping his pants and getting boffo laughs and then repeating the gag until everyone is thoroughly sick of him; or the dour co-worker Squidward accidentally giving SpongeBob a bomb shaped like a pie and being forced to frolic with him during his last hours; or SpongeBob discovering that jellyfish jelly tastes mmmm-good on Krabby Patties until Mr. Krabs enslaves the entire jellyfish population of Bikini Bottom.

Those 11-minute episodes of Hawaiian-slacker whimsy, set against flower-cloud backdrops inspired by Polynesian fabrics and punctuated by ukulele music and SpongeBob's dolphin-on-a-sugar-high chortle, have made Nickelodeon's "SpongeBob SquarePants" a phenomenon not only with little kids, but also with big kids, college students, stoners, gays - pretty much everyone who walks on land or shells out, so to speak, for the tie-in merchandise.

Seventy-five minutes: That's the unit Mr. Hillenburg and his fellow SpongeBobians have been wrestling with for the last two years making "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie," which is due in theaters on Nov. 19. Mr. Hillenburg explained that 75 is more than 6.81818181 times 11. It's a whole different time-space continuum.

"To do a 75-minute movie about SpongeBob wanting to make some jellyfish jelly would be a mistake, I think," he said, taking a break from his post-production labors here, where he is also working on the fourth season of the television series. "This had to be SpongeBob in a great adventure. That's where the comedy's coming from, having these two na´ve characters, SpongeBob and Patrick, a doofus and an idiot, on this incredibly dangerous heroic odyssey with all the odds against them."

It should be said that Mr. Hillenburg, 43, doesn't often sit for interviews. He keeps a low profile in the industry, working long days on "SpongeBob" and living quietly in Pasadena with his wife and young son. Submitting to questions late last month, he was friendly but not loquacious. Tom Kenny, who does the voice of SpongeBob, often serves, with Bill Fagerbakke, who does the voice of Patrick, as the show's ambassador. "The other day, I was talking to this CBS crew," Mr. Kenny said. "They were asking me: 'What's the deal with Hillenburg? We're trying to get to him but he's so mysterious. He's like Howard Hughes.' "

Animation's Howard Hughes looks more like a surfer dude. He has a compact, muscular frame, perfect for long boards, and he'd like to hit the waves again, actually, when the movie is finished and he can take a short break. Described by colleagues as a perfectionist workaholic, Mr. Hillenburg has coped with the explosion of SpongeBob mania by doing his best to wall himself off from it.

Mr. Kenny said: "The idea that came from him, it's a snowball that rolled down the hill and now it's huge, and he's just trying to stay involved in a way that will keep the yellow character evergreen - or ever-yellow. And true."

Mr. Hillenburg even resisted pressure from Nickelodeon and Paramount to make a SpongeBob movie, saying no for more than a year until it hit him - while watching "The Iron Giant" and "Toy Story" with his son - that it would be a challenge to give SpongeBob and Patrick something more cinematically consequential and inspiring to do, as long as it could be done without losing what he calls the SpongeBob "cadence."

To write the film, Mr. Hillenburg sat with five other writer-animators who had worked on the show - Paul Tibbitt, Derek Drymon, Aaron Springer, Kent Osborne and Tim Hill - in a room in a former bank in Glendale for three months. "It was hugely fun," Mr. Osborne said, "although it did get kind of gamy in there."

"SpongeBob SquarePants" is different from many cartoons and animated features in that its writers also draw, working from rough outlines rather than dialogue-laden scripts. That means that the humor is more visual than verbal, Mr. Hillenburg said: it's in the characters' extreme body language, in how they slither capriciously around the deadpan frames. In the beginning of the series, Mr. Hillenburg screened a host of silent shorts: Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, as well as the work of two notably extreme modern comic actors, Jerry Lewis and Pee-wee Herman, both obvious inspirations for SpongeBob.

For "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie," the writers concocted a mythical hero's quest, a search for a stolen crown that takes SpongeBob and Patrick to dry land, to the deadly lair of a cyclops-like deep-sea diver, and to the bronzed feet of David Hasselhoff, playing himself as well as a human motorboat on whose back the heroes try to elude an assassin.

Did they preserve the cadence? Not entirely. The film is more linear and fast-paced, with a conventional Hollywood story structure that involves King Neptune (voiced by Jeffrey Tambor), his bespectacled daughter, Mindy (Scarlett Johansson), and a hit man named Dennis (Alec Baldwin). But there is still room for SpongeBob and Patrick to pull down their pants and show off their buttocks or engage in protracted bouts of kindergartenish bubble-blowing. The final, "Indiana Jones"-like chase, in which the pair cling to Mr. Hasselhoff's leg hairs (or actually, the leg hairs of a 12-foot cast of Mr. Hasselhoff) is not exactly Jerry the Mouse dancing with Gene Kelly. But it's mind-blowing, as is the sight of Mr. Hasselhoff launching SpongeBob and Patrick into the air by wedging them between his large pectorals and squeezing. Adding to the surrealism: Avril Lavigne warbles the "SpongeBob" title song, and the soundtrack features odes to SpongeBob from the likes of the Shins, the Flaming Lips, Wilco and Ween.

The wave of merchandise, meanwhile, continues to swell, the Internet abounding with accusations that Nickelodeon is trying to squeeze ever more cash from this particular sponge. Julia Pistor, the film's co-producer and the chief liaison between the "SpongeBob" crew and the studio, conceded that the company has a strong desire to sell backpacks, lunchboxes, wristwatches and anything else that can profitably accommodate the images of SpongeBob and Patrick. But she insisted that Nickelodeon, which owns the SpongeBob trademark, also respects Mr. Hillenburg's integrity and gives him veto power over merchandising.

Mr. Hillenburg has no problem with candy and ice cream tie-ins, Ms. Pistor said, because candy and ice cream are central to kids' existence - and besides, no one's trying to pass them off as anything but gargantuan loads of sugar and fat. But Mr. Hillenburg does have issues with fast food, which is full of hidden additives. "The trouble is that you can't go out with animated films without a fast-food tie-in," Ms. Pistor said. "People don't take you seriously." And "SpongeBob SquarePants" seems especially conducive to fast food. Think of being able to buy Krabby Patties! Or fish sticks in the shape of your favorite Bikini Bottom characters!

Mr. Hillenburg said, evenly: "Yeah, well, my take on that is that we shouldn't do that. In the show, the whole point of the fast food - the fact that SpongeBob loves being part of the fast-food chain, and that being a manager is his ultimate dream: it's ironic. It's something that most people don't think is a great thing to try to achieve. And we didn't want to suddenly become the people serving up food that's not that good for you - especially kids. We work with Burger King, and they make toys and watches. But to actually take the step of pushing the food, that's crossing the line. I don't want to be the Pied Piper of fast food."

Sherm Cohen, the movie's co-director, has drawn many of the SpongeBob-related commercials including a forthcoming movie tie-in for Burger King. "Stephen has a firm rule that SpongeBob can't interact with the product," Mr. Cohen said.

"At one point in one of the new commercials," he continued, "SpongeBob fries his burgers on a grill, which is the antithesis of the Burger King method, which is flame-broiling. And they actually said, 'We need to change this and have SpongeBob cooking on a flame broiler.' And Steve just said: 'No. Take it or leave it. If you want the toys, that's what SpongeBob uses.' "

Target had proposed the slogan "It's Hip to Be Square," to be accompanied by the Huey Lewis song for a line of SpongeBob merchandise. "Stephen said, 'SpongeBob is not about being hip,' " Ms. Pistor said. His alternative, which is being used, was "Dare to Be Square."

When I mentioned to Mr. Hillenburg that I had thumbed through a shopping catalog on the plane to see him and come upon a page of SpongeBob watches and CD players, he winced. "I looked at the same catalog," he said. "And I was like" - he paused and let out a long sigh. "At first it's both weird and flattering, and then after a while you get tired of seeing it. It loses preciousness after a while. One night I was really beat, we worked really late and went to get food at some takeout place. And I leaned over against this gumball machine, just exhausted, and there was a SpongeBob looking back at me. And it's just, like, 'Oh, brother.' "

Mr. Cohen the co-director remembers when the flood of SpongeBob dolls and products began. "I was really excited," he said. "But Stephen looked grim. He said, 'My biggest nightmare is that I'm going to be at the beach one day, and one of these dolls is going to wash up on the shore like garbage.' Being a marine biologist who also surfs, he doesn't want to be responsible for bringing a glut of garbage into the world."

Many "SpongeBob" fans have wondered if Mr. Hillenburg wants to expand his reach, to build a Walt Disneylike empire of characters. Mr. Tibbitt, the writer and producer who has been with the show from the beginning, said: "That's not what interests him. He'd rather paint or draw. He doesn't have a list of 10 other shows he wants to sell. This is it for him."

To understand "it," you have to know what "SpongeBob" means to Mr. Hillenburg: "The show is about watching an innocent character in this world that he lives in. And the movie is about embracing innocence. It's saying that the childlike mind is O.K. It's saying that dorks can be really important."

Mr. Kenny says he thinks there's even more to "SpongeBob." "Kids are innocent, yes, and they're fun, yes, but they're also little insane people," he said. "There's a really weird, surreal, twisted side to kids, and kid thinking comes very easily to Steve, and he enjoys it in real kids. And I think that SpongeBob the character and 'SpongeBob' the series have that weird, trippy side of being a kid intact."

At 75 minutes, the twists in "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie" are a tad straighter, but the childlike world view remains evergreen. I mean ever-yellow.