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Review: Spongebob And Paddington Are Unexpectedly Charming Surprises

Paddington isn’t creepy and Spongebob is still clever!

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January and February (and at this point, much of March) have a notorious reputation for being bad months for movies. The early year’s best films are usually small movies that attempted to land nominations with “qualifying runs” back in the previous year, and these hold-overs are often pretty bad. Thus, there’s a certain phenomenon where I hold incredibly low expectations for early-year releases – and my expectations for kids’ movies are even lower (having seen Strange Magic, I don’t think I’d set my expectations low enough). Luckily, there were two excellent, very different movies this winter that far exceeded my expectations: Paddington and The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water.

Paddington was a movie I really didn’t plan to watch when it first came to my attention. There was a certain “creepiness” to the marketing campaign which struck me as a very bad sign – it seemed more horror flick than family film. And the trailers that were in theaters for months were a bad representation of the film; that bathroom joke doesn’t capture the film’s spirit at all. When Colin Firth left the production and to be replaced by Ben Whishaw, I was sure the film was destined to be a mess.

Turns out, Whishaw is actually Paddington’s secret weapon, the one thing that makes the movie into one of the most delightful films of the year. With a soft, childlike voice, he anchors Paddington as a little orphan in search of new parents, and succeeds at breaking your heart very early in the film; first with a death in the tradition of Bambi, and then (as if that weren’t sad enough) by separating him from his family. Seriously, this film has shades of a lot of classic animated movies that taught kids hard lessons; Dumbo, Oliver & Company, An American Tale. And Whishaw’s youthful performance really works in making you feel very affectionately towards this little bear without a home.

Had Firth remained on the film (despite my preference to believe he can do no wrong), he would have been far too “reserved” with his voice to play the childlike innocent, too similar to Hugh Bonneville’s type. Making it clear from the very beginning that Paddington is very much “a child” is essential for the film, because it sets the whimsical tone, and allows Bonneville and Sally Hawkins to adjust their performance styles. Bonneville’s “serious dad” and cartoonish quality is very much in the tradition of Mary Poppins’s Mr. Banks, or Firth’s character in the underrated Nanny McPhee. And Hawkins is the perfect choice to play the open-hearted Mrs. Potter; she is broad enough to play up the movie’s storybook silliness, and expressive enough to play the emotional scenes (despite not having a scene partner). There are moments when you believe she is looking into the eyes we see, even though they’re just CG.

In fact, all the actors are very good at committing to the film’s careful tonal mix of playful whimsy with genuine tenderness, set in the same “other” time of nostalgia we know from Wes Anderson films. In fact, this film owes a lot in terms of production design to Anderson, mixing nostalgia, pop-culture, and present day into one world. From the storybook exposition to the minimal inclusion of modern technology, this is the perfect blend of Winnie the Pooh’s sweetness and Mr. Fox’s design with just a touch of Muppet sensibility (Nicole Kidman and Peter Capaldi’s characters are very close to Muppet Caper villains). And Paddington himself sometimes looks like more of a Muppet than a CG creation, so he is far more huggable than I assumed he would be… except when he runs.

There can be problems in CGI-heavy film when your eye sees something presented as realistic, but you just know isn’t “right” and you disconnect from the action. That was the reaction people had to the trailer and poster, because of the way Paddington was integrated. And when Paddington runs (though not when walking, oddly) the creature doesn’t have enough weight to sell his movement; instead, he seems to float, and fails to interact with the environment. But there aren’t many moments when Paddington runs, and there are times when they animate him so well it’s actually kind of remarkable – such as when he walks up a banister or flies through the air. Those are moments when the artistry really shines and anchors the character in your heart.

But it’s the movie’s story, the purity of a movie being about a family opening their hearts to a child in need, that makes it such a perfect little family film. Parents will cry, kids will be entertained, families will have conversations, and even if you want to go without kids, you won’t feel horribly out of place. Oddly enough, it turns out the same is true of Spongebob Squarepants – although that movie didn’t leave me nearly as as weepy as Paddington. In fact, if the heart of Paddington is the story and message, Spongebob Squarepants really doesn’t give a damn about those things. Like the TV show, its message is “be nice and positive,” and the movie doesn’t go much deeper than that.

Listen: if you hate Spongebob and find the TV show’s writing grating, DO NOT SEE THIS MOVIE. It isn’t that much different from the show, and the writing’s sensibility is near identical. But if you’ve always found Spongebob and his friends funny and endearing, you will probably still find them funny and endearing in film form. Plus, Tom Kenny is still a voiceover genius who really deserves a lot of credit for how much he brings to his characters.

The thing I personally like about watching a Spongebob is that it’s just ridiculous. I don’t usually like comedy for the sake of cultural random comedy, but the sensibility a show like Spongebob captured early in the 2000s is the same thing captured now by Adventure Time and the weirdest episodes of  Bob’s Burgers; a kind of joyful silliness which is completely absent of being mean-spirited. And the team behind the show are clearly interested in finding the silliest ways to carry this odd story. Krabby patties and their recipe have been stolen, and Plankton is blamed. Knowing he didn’t do it, Spongebob makes it his mission to clear his name by solving the mystery. But in the meantime, Bikini Bottom turns into a thunderdome full of cruel, selfish people. Plus, we get some really great time travel jokes with a pretty funny song.

Then, for reasons I won’t go into, Spongebob and friends head to the surface and engage in full Looney Tunes behavior (as you’ve seen in the trailer). But it takes nearly an hour to get out of the water, and before that, it looks like a really great version of the show – one that actually understands how to incorporate 3D. Do I think you have to see this movie in 3D? No. But if you have an appreciation for the art, they do it well in both live action and animation. I should also say one of the characters who has always been a strange inclusion, Sandy Cheeks, is finally allowed to get into the fun. She has always been given the “girl as one of the guys” mom role, as the only smart person in Bikini Bottom; but in this film, she finally gets to be as silly as the boys, which is a step (although small) in the right direction for kids’ movies. Sadly, the film does not pass the Bechdel test.

Though these films are both great, it’s ultimately disappointing that the funniest, sweetest, and most enjoyable family films of the season both feature male protagonists – and that a movie like Strange Magic, made to have female heroes, is such a bummer. I know ten-year-old me would feel much more affection for Paddington and Spongebob than those princesses, and adults will be far less likely to take a nap during their films.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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