The Lego Movie is So Last Year

by Matthew Cabe


(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

It took well over a year for me to realize I don’t hate The Lego Movie; hate can’t be reserved for something that so painstakingly shies away from its true self. So, instead, I merely feel sorry for it. Because the whole thing hit uncomfortably close to home, and what I mean by that is the movie made me feel as though I was watching a secretly awkward kid—about 13-years-old—who lies to his peers about what he thinks is cool in order to fit in.

This kid begrudgingly embraces skateboarding, bomber jackets, and wallet chains. He sags his baggy pants and fakes his way through conversations about drug references in Sublime songs (all the while not knowing that “pot” and “weed” are synonymous) out of fear that someone might clue in on his weekend plans, which will include earnestly lip synching R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” in front of a full-body mirror and excitedly driving to the local movie theater later that night to see Gosford Park by himself.

Actually, the Gosford Park viewing didn’t happen until a few years later, but you see what I’m getting at. Rather than tell us what it really enjoys (sitting alone in a basement constructing fake worlds out of colorful pieces of plastic) The Lego Movie feigns coolness by referencing all that is nearly unanimously agreed upon in pop culture in hopes that it will blend into the group, all the while hiding the fact that it’s a nerd in popular kid’s clothing with one simple, vague, frightened, Oscar-nominated statement of knee-jerk agreement: “Everything is awesome!”

All I can do now is be thankful that 2014 (and 1997 for that matter) are history. Because in the here and now of 2015, something as uncompromisingly surreal and proudly weird as The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water exists and it doesn’t care what anyone thinks.

Comparing these movies is fairly simple. Both include characters who journey toward discovering their true selves and where they fit in. Both rely heavily, in song and in dialogue, on the importance of teamwork. And, oddly enough, both the Lego universe, the world of Bikini Bottom (SpongeBob’s hometown), and all the characters therein turn out to be constructed by and eventually battle against seemingly higher powers working to stifle their free will.

But how SpongeBob works with these similarities is what sets it apart and above The Lego Movie. For example, it’s Lego’s protagonist, Emmet, who suffers an identity crisis and ultimately struggles to change for the better in order to become “the Special.” SpongeBob, by contrast, is perfectly comfortable in his own absorbent and yellow and porous skin, and he has every right to be because he fully understands both himself and his place in the world. Luckily, screenwriters Glenn Berger and Jonathan Aibel were aware of this, too, and chose instead to center their story around the personal growth of Plankton, Mr. Krabs’s arch nemesis and antagonist of the SpongeBob SquarePants television series.

The plot involves a search for the secret formula Mr. Krabs uses to make his world famous Krabby Patties, which has mysteriously vanished; however, it’s not Plankton, despite his best efforts, who steals the formula (although all of Bikini Bottom, save SpongeBob, refuses to believe this).

The real joys found in Sponge Out of Water lie in the hilarious scenarios SpongeBob and Plankton find themselves in during their search. By far the funniest sequence involves a makeshift time machine they use in an attempt to travel back to moments before the formula disappeared. Naturally, 2001: A Space Odyssey is invoked here, but the creators also animate SpongeBob and Plankton very differently to showcase the possible physical changes that might occur during time travel. It’s an obvious reference to the visual strangeness of SpongeBob predecessors The Ren & Stimpy Show and Rocko’s Modern Life, and it’s done to perfection.

On top of this is the clever use of N.E.R.D.’s song, “Squeeze Me”. Each time the machine starts up so does the song, including the only discernible lyric, an anticlimactic, “Yeaaaah.” Episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants often incorporate quirky ditties to augment the show’s oddball humor, but “Squeeze Me” is far and away the most effective example of this.

Speaking of music, a duet early on helps to establish another difference between Sponge Out of Water and The Lego Movie. Because whereas the aforementioned “Everything is Awesome” is an over-produced spectacle, SpongeBob and Plankton singing “Teamwork” is nearly forgettable by comparison. You wonder if the writers were swayed by Plankton’s initial refusal to sing and, as a result, crafted the song on such a small scale if only to appease him.

I’m sure that sounds like a dig, but it’s really just another example of how unique this movie is. It doesn’t pander and it doesn’t give in to expectations. Everything is done in service of its bizarre characters (there’s even a godlike dolphin who watches over the universe and shoots lasers out of his blowhole) and their admirable acceptance of one another’s eccentricities that culminates in them transforming into superheroes with powers that range from blowing copious amounts of bubbles to creating sonic booms with a clarinet. Sponge Out of Water is an example of what’s possible when differences are embraced and utilized to make the world a better place. It’s a movie that fears not whether you think it’s an odd duck. It’s the anti-Lego Movie. And everything about it is indeed awesome.