In his book “From Caligari to Hitler,” film theorist Siegfried Kracauer argues that Hitler’s rise to power in the crippled post-World War I Germany was aided by the cinematic movement German Expressionism, which focused entirely on creating alternate, almost dreamlike realities in the films under its stylistic umbrella. By taking the focus away from the very real dangers presented by Nazism, Kracauer said, film in this period of time effectively numbed the German people, providing a kind of distracting soma that further propelled Hitler into ultimate power. Sadly, the difference between German Expressionist films and the latest profit-minded product from Nickelodeon, “The Spongebob Squarepants Movie” (Paramount Pictures), is that Expressionism left the world with some of the most beautiful visual experiences ever created, while “Spongebob” leaves a feeling of emptiness in which the only question left in the intellectual transom is, “Where did my 90 minutes go?”
Any trace of the “Spongebob Squarepants” television show’s quirky charm that reins in both children and adults is completely absent from the film, which feels much more like an attempt by Viacom to exert capitalist mind control over its young audiences to buy more Spongebob merchandise than a genuine attempt to entertain. The carefully orchestrated mayhem and joyful nonsense of the show has been replaced with a vapid and forgettable void. Even the film’s being-yourself-is-okay message is forgotten when the house lights come back up. It’s not just me, either; in an audience filled almost entirely with young children, the amount of laughter the movie generated could liberally be described as sparse. Why such bands as the Shins, Wilco and the Flaming Lips would allow themselves to appear on this film’s soundtrack is beyond comprehension. I suppose we should listen for Iron and Wine in “Hey Arnold Strikes Back” or some other future corporate ‘entertainment’ drivel.
The only remotely inspired moments in the film are its nods to other, better things. David Hasselhoff’s much-anticipated cameo in the movie works well enough and provides its only genuine laughs, and while the villain Dennis (Alec Baldwin) is as ineffective as the rest of the movie, he is a nod to the antagonist in the Coen Brothers’ “Raising Arizona.” At least the movie can serve as a reminder of something funny.
“The Spongebob Squarepants Movie” opens in Washington, D.C. Friday, Nov. 18.