PARAMOUNT/Color/1.85/Dolby Digital & DTS/90 Mins./Rated PG

Voice Cast: Tom Kenny, Bill Fagerbakke, Clancy Brown, Rodger Bumpass, Mr. Lawrence, Jill Talley, Carolyn Lawrence, Mary Jo Catlett, Jeffrey Tambor, Scarlett Johansson, Alec Baldwin, David Hasselhoff.
Credits: Directed by Stephen Hillenburg. Screenplay and storyboards by Derek Drymon, Tim Hill, Hillenburg, Kent Osborne, Aaron Springer, Paul Tibbitt, based on a story and series created by Hillenburg. Produced by Hillenburg, Julia Pistor. Executive producers: Albie Hecht, Gina Shay, Drymon. Director of photography: Jerzy Zielinski. Edited by Lynn Hobson. Music by Gregor Narholz. Supervising animation director: Alan Smart. A Nickelodeon Movies production, in association with United Plankton Pictures.

In the cookie-cutter world of children's television, it's always nice to see something like “SpongeBob Squarepants” become a media phenomenon. A deeply strange series about a hyperactive (and hyper-absorbent) bright yellow sponge that lives in a pineapple under the sea, the show was an instant smash when it debuted on Nickelodeon in 1999. Kids love it because the characters are both instantly recognizable and completely off-the-wall. Adults (particularly twenty-somethings) love it because creator Stephen Hillenburg isn’t afraid to take the series for a walk on the surreal side. Where a lot of kiddie shows go out of their way to be as bland and inoffensive as possible, SpongeBob frequently plays around with both its form and content. In many ways, it’s the “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” for this generation of youngsters. SpongeBob himself actually shares a lot of similarities with Paul Reubens’ alter ego, from his excessive enthusiasm to the suit-and-tie combo he always sports no matter the situation.

For SpongeBob’s feature film debut, Hillenburg borrows another page from the Pee-wee playbook. As anyone who grew up in the ’80s remembers, Pee-wee’s first film found the titular man-child traveling across the country to recover his favorite red bicycle, which had been stolen by his arch-nemesis. In The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie, SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) and his best friend Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) travel across the ocean floor to recover the crown of King Neptune (the wonderful Jeffrey Tambor), which was stolen by their arch-nemesis Plankton (Mr. Lawrence). Along the way, they have a number of adventures and encounter several strange new characters, including a gravel-voiced assassin (Alec Baldwin), King Neptune’s pretty mermaid daughter (Scarlett Johansson) and a live-action David Hasselhoff as…himself. The duo also learns that it’s actually beneficial to act like grown-ups sometimes, especially when you’re about to venture into a pit infested with sea monsters.

In the past, Nickelodeon has had a spotty track record adapting their shows to the big screen. The first two Rugrats features were modest box-office successes, but bland movies that played like extra-long episodes of the series. Hey Arnold! The Movie disappeared the week after it opened (with good reason) and their most recent production, Rugrats Go Wild!, which saw the Rugrats babies tooling around the jungle with the family from “The Wild Thornberrys,” proved similarly unmemorable. While it’s doubtful that the SpongeBob movie will do Incredibles numbers, it’s the best film Nickelodeon has produced yet and probably the best movie that could have been made out of the source material. Let’s face it: “SpongeBob Squarepants” was never going to inspire an instant animated classic. The kind of humor it specializes in functions best in the ten-minute adventures favored by most television cartoons. Stretching the scenario out to feature length could not have been easy, and it’s to Hillenburg’s credit that he’s able to retain the show’s weird sensibility without letting it become actively annoying. As it is, the move does lose steam around the 60-minute mark and the conclusion is so rushed, it feels like Hillenburg realized he was simply out of ideas. Some of the more bizarre touches also miss the mark; Hasselhoff’s cameo, for example, probably sounded funny on paper, but hasn’t his time as a pop-culture punch line expired? Besides, kids most likely won’t have any idea who he is, while most adults hopefully stopped thinking about him a long time ago. Still, this is one Nickelodeon movie that parents shouldn’t dread escorting their children to. It’s bright, funny and charming without being cloying. And as any adult who has had to endure such video babysitters as Clifford’s Really Big Movie knows, that makes all the difference.