When, in the thoroughly enjoyable (though somewhat exhausting) "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water," the tiny, scheming Plankton takes a surreptitious trip into one of those sponge-holes, he finds a brain coated with cotton candy, rainbows and all manner of sweets, like a scene from "The Nutcracker." It's enough to make a cynical little organism sick, but it makes us love sweet SpongeBob even more.
As does director Paul Tibbitt's new movie, which is zany and clever and fun (and in 3D), as long as you can take 93 minutes of it. That may depend on your age. As I exited the theater I heard a father telling his young son wearily, "That's about all the SpongeBob I can take." The son, it seemed, could have taken a few hours more.
The movie - the second feature-length outing for the durable Nickelodeon TV character, and the first since 2004 -begins somewhere above the undersea hamlet of Bikini Bottom, where SpongeBob lives. We meet a nefarious pirate character named Burger Beard (Antonio Banderas, in live action and game for anything), tracking down a precious ancient book via his treasure map.
The book tells the story of Bikini Bottom - a device to bring newcomers up to speed. (In a clever touch that parents will like, an old library card shows the previous borrowers, who include Davy Jones. "This is way overdue," the pirate says.) We learn how Bikini Bottom is addicted to Krabby Patties, the succulent burgers made only at Krusty Krab, the fast-food joint where SpongeBob (voiced by Tom Kenny) works for Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown), who keeps the secret recipe stowed away in a vault.
Back down in Bikini Bottom, rival restaurant owner Plankton is trying to steal the formula, as usual. He fails, but the formula actually disappears. The two rivals join forces to find it, and this quest drives the movie, with many a wacky tangent awaiting - including time travel and even space travel, up to a weird platform somewhere in the universe where a porpoise who sounds delightfully like Christopher Walken makes sure the planets don't collide.
But back to the recipe. It's an urgent mission, because without its beloved snack, Bikini Bottom falls immediately into an apocalyptic state, with everyone wearing leather and turning evil. They're hungry - very hungry.
Eventually, SpongeBob and his posse, which includes series regulars Squidward (Rodger Bumpass), Sandy (Carolyn Lawrence) and of course starfish Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), will end up traveling somewhere they've never been: Up to the surface, and out of the water. Here, they assume their new, 3D form, the better to run around the beach (peopled by live-action humans) and track down the villainous Burger Beard, who's up to something nasty.
This isn't a battle to be fought by mere, well, puppets - and so they make another transformation, into glorious superhero versions of themselves, the better to battle that snack-stealing pirate and rescue their desperate hometown.
Kids, likely, will be the prime audience for these energetic shenanigans. Adults may prefer the clever wordplay. "Unleash the condiments!" Krabs says at one point in a battle. "With relish!" SpongeBob replies. There's also a cute visual gag making fun of those of us who would never mix the garbage with the recycling.
It's striking to realize that SpongeBob, the character, is more than 15 years old in sponge years (the TV series' creator, Stephen Hillenburg, is an executive producer here.) He's isn't slowing down. If you like the yellow guy on TV, you should have a good, squishy time here, too.
"The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water,'" a Paramount release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America "for mild action and rude humor." Running time: 93 minutes. Three stars out of four.