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Prior to his passing, the marine biologist-turned-animator had an idea for a third feature film starring Bikini Bottom's happy-go-lucky fry cook (voiced by Tom Kenny). That idea eventually became The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run, the first film in the series to be completely animated with 3D techniques. The project ended up being written and directed by Tim Hill, a writer who's been with the long-running TV show since it first aired all the way back in 1999.
Speaking with SYFY WIRE during a virtual press junket, Hill states that his ultimate goal for Sponge on the Run, premiering on Paramount+ on March 4, was to "stick to the characters and the show. You see them on a new adventure and kind of expect Steve Hillenburg's original idea about the show. Pretty much make it a really fun road trip with some great cameos and just wacky adventures. [I wanted] to make it as silly as I could. That was the main thing."
The filmmaker also reveals that the story was directly inspired by the Season 4 episode "Have You Seen This Snail?," in which SpongeBob's pet snail, Gary (also voiced by Kenny), runs away from home. "[Stephen] wanted to springboard off of that idea for the movie," Hill explains.
Sponge on the Run takes that concept and broadens the scope. Instead of running away from home, Gary is mysteriously "snail-napped" and taken to "The Lost City of Atlantic City," the Vegas-inspired domain of King Poseidon (What We Do in the Shadows' Matt Berry). The king's right-hand man (or fish, rather) is the Chancellor, voiced by Reggie Watts (SYFY's Wild Life), who, by his own admission, has kind of been living under a SpongeBob-less rock for the past two decades — just like Patrick Star!
"The funny thing is I knew of SpongeBob and all my friends loved [it]," he says. "In the '90s, I didn't have TV, so I only got SpongeBob in little slices and doses [from] people saying lines and stuff like that."
Watts describes his time working on Sponge on the Run as his chance to undergo "trial by fire [and become involved in the universe.
"I was really excited because many of my friends, when I told them I was doing it, they were freaking out," he continues. "It was great — my whole thing was I just wanted to find a character voice that worked for the character and make sure that grooved with the scenes. Of course, knowing that Matt Berry was [involved], I'm a huge Matt Berry fan, so I wanted to make it extra good for everybody."
To prepare for his dive into the ocean, Watts started with the very first episode ("Help Wanted") and then jumped through the various seasons in order to give himself a crash course in SpongeBob SquarePants.
"I just went through years [and] skipped ahead and saw how it was 4:3 aspect ratio and then it got wider. That was really, really fun," he continues. "It was cool to understand that this is a show that really speaks to all ages and it's so silly and so ridiculous and irreverent. It was really nice to discover it at my age. It took me [this long to go] 'Oh, this is what this is? Oh, this is awesome!'"
To retrieve Gary, SpongeBob and Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) team up for another epic road trip that takes them to Atlantic City. They meet some strange characters along the way, including a wise spirit guide named "Sage" — portrayed by Keanu Reeves' head in the middle of a desert tumbleweed.
"He's great. He's super focused and really professional," Hill says of the John Wick star. "He's a really nice guy, he was a joy to work with, actually — probably one of the best experiences I've had. He knew his lines, he wanted to do it his way, but really right and we agreed on a lot, so it worked out really well. But he was really focused, which I was very happy with."
After so many years of seeing SpongeBob as a mainstay of the 2D environment, Kenny wasn't sure if the iconic character would translate well into the realm of CG. It was a scary thought; almost as scary as a live-action pencil sinking into the ocean and spawning a host of evil illustrations. ME HOY MINOY!
"To be honest, you're never really sure how that's gonna work. To me, SpongeBob is so thoroughly 2D in my brain," the veteran voice actor tells us. "They experimented with that [CG animation] in the prior movie, Sponge out of Water, where they did that sequence where Sponge and the gang came up out of the water into the live-action world. That was Steve Hillenburg and the guys dipping their toe into the possibility of a 3D/CG SpongeBob. Like, 'Could that work and could you get that same squash and stretch animation bounce that you get in traditional animation?' Because most CG doesn't have that and they figured out a way to do it. Really, it's just marrying the new technology with the determinedly old-school traditionalist sense that the show has always had since the beginning ... It’s still SpongeBob and it’s the same humor and world that makes that show live and breathe on the big and small screen, that’s what it’s all about."
The film also features the voice talents of Clancy Brown ("Mr. Krabs"), Rodger Bumpass ("Squidward"), Carolyn Lawrence ("Sandy"), Mr. Lawrence ("Plankton"), and Awkwafina ("Otto"). The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run arrives on Paramount+ (aka CBS All Access) on Thursday, March 4. Nickelodeon's prequel series, Kamp Koral, debuts the same day.