This week, he who lives in a pineapple under the sea returns to the big screen with The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water, the follow-up to 2004’s The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. (And if you really want to feel old, it is easily conceivable that couples who saw the first movie on a date could be taking their age-appropriate child to see the sequel.) However, the citizens of Bikini Bottom aren’t the only TV denizens to make a leap to the big screen. Many TV-first characters have tried their hands at big screen glory, with varying degrees of success.
When turning a television show into a movie, there are two main approaches to take: Exaggerated Episode and Continuation. As implied, an Exaggerated Episode is just a bigger episode of the TV show. It has a larger budget and longer running time, but at the end, everything has reverted to status quo. (Even after Batman’s most dastardly villains converted the world’s leaders into colored sand!) Continuations, which are rarer and often come after a show has left the air, attempt to do something more – provide closure, give greater depth to characters, or jumpstart a franchise in a brand new medium.
For a mid-series movie like SpongeBob, the Exaggerated Episode tends to be the most popular option. It makes sense because you don’t want to task the writer’s room with completely revamping the show, you don’t want to penalize the fans who didn’t get a chance to make it out to theaters but want to keep watching the show, and you don’t want to require foreknowledge of the show’s plot from an audience who might have never seen the series, particularly if it’s been running for some time. The increased attention brought on by an extensive marketing campaign (plus the single-serving nature of a movie) can acquire new fans, as well as bring in old ones who had fallen away back into the fold. For this purpose, the Exaggerated Episode makes sense because it’s easier for the un- (or under-) initiated to understand the world and its main characters.
One of the biggest recent examples of the Exaggerated Episode was The Simpsons Movie (2007). Released between the 18th and 19th season, the film earned a worldwide gross of over half-a-billion dollars and mostly positive reviews (90% from Rotten Tomatoes with a 7.6 average rating). Yet the movie also shows the problems with the Exaggerated Episode format. It certainly had decent laughs and some inspired moments, but it ended up as a decent-but-mostly-unexceptional long episode. While it looked fantastic, there was nothing especially cinematic about The Simpsons Movie. It wasn’t able to take advantage of the big screen format or the freedom that entails effectively.
Alternatively, 1999’s South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut was a game changer. While it did not alter the internal universe of the show (though a later episode would reveal that 8 million people died in the Canadian/American War of 1999), creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone used the freedom of the big screen and the R rating to show what South Park was capable of. It was the first time we got a sense of the true strength of the satirical voice lying underneath the town’s surface, and how South Park could be more than a series of catchphrases and inventive way of killing Kenny. The movie didn’t just use this opportunity simply to run the gamut of foul language without bleeps, it made a point about the power we give to dirty words, as well as mocking a hyper-reactive society (that has only gotten worse since with the advent of social media). It had something to say (and did so with incredibly catchy tunes), and in the 16 years since, South Park has never lost this drive to poke fun at society’s foibles.
South Park took chances that paid off while remaining true to the universe and offering enough fan service without laying it on too thick. While The Simpsons is, comparatively, in a more grounded universe, it nevertheless played it too safe; it seemed more suited towards tourists to Springfield than long-term residents. (In another example of a mid-run-animated-series-turned-movie, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America wasn’t nearly as groundbreaking as the South Park one, but its North by Northwest-ian wrong man plot was definitely more intricate than the show would allow.)
The new SpongeBob movie actually seems to be taking the more impressive approach favored by South Park and Beavis. While the first movie was more of a traditional SpongeBob episode, only longer (much like The Simpsons Movie), the sequel seems to be trying for something weirder and more experimental than would be appropriate for a mere TV episode. The characters all still seem to be there to provide an immediate connection for the longtime fan, but the movie seems to have been granted license to try something fresh while staying within the general idea of what SpongeBob is and should be.
There’s no better example of this than the Star Trek series. Cut off three years into their five year mission, the crew of the USS Enterprise would not be as heralded as they are now if the movies didn’t allow the original cast to continue their journey. And not just the five year journey to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before, but the lifelong journey of its characters. Star Treks 2, 3, 4, and 6 tell continuing, character-based stories in a time when most other franchises mostly cared about keeping things at status quo. We saw Kirk, Spock, McCoy, et al. deal with aging, death, and changing times in a way that felt true to the characters but couldn’t have done with the more episodic 1960s show. The characters grow and change from movie to movie, which doesn’t just honor Star Trek, but honors what good franchises should do.
The Star Trek: The Next Generation movies failed at this. After seven years on air, the characters had been around long enough for audience to feel exhausted by them. As with any long running series, at some point, we need a break. Star Trek Generations came out six months after “All Good Things…” (the series finale of TNG) – compare that to the 10 years between “Turnabout Intruder” and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. We got genuine closure with the TNG characters not half a year before. Bringing them back for what amounted to a gimmick (Kirk and Picard together!) did a great disservice to the great conclusion of the series. Moreover, a good Continuation should take place long enough from the end of the series that we’d be interested in seeing what the characters were up to; this didn’t. These films also failed where the earlier one succeeded because they weren’t nearly as innovative in plot or characterization as their Kirk-led counterparts. They felt more like Exaggerated Episodes, and not particularly good ones.
The most “successful” recent example of the Continuation is Serenity, the cinematic spin-off of Joss Whedon’s half-season cult hit (and I’d argue his masterpiece) Firefly. While it tried to catch audiences up with an opening monologue explaining the universe he was dropping them into, it nevertheless primarily catered towards fans – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It was their dedication that gave Captain Mal Reynolds, Jayne Cobb, and the rest of the crew this opportunity, and the movie honored the Browncoats rather than abandoning all of the world’s intricacies to become a generic space actioner.
Certainly, boiling down what could have been a seasonal (or even multi-seasonal) arc into average movie running time cost the story some of its nuances (as well as the inevitable superfluous material), but the movie answered some longstanding questions, resolved ongoing plotpoints, and provided some closure. Moreover, Whedon took advantage of the new format to produce a movie that looked more expensive and felt more grandiose than any of the television episodes. But most importantly, it had the heart of the show, the spirit of the characters, and gave the Firefly saga the send-off it deserved.
Same Bat-Time. Same Bat-Theatre.
Not that I have an opinion on it or anything…