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MOVIE REVIEW

Crossover 'toons

'SpongeBob' finally reaches the big screen with a story that kids (and even adults) can soak up

While the digitally created Incredibles are off defending the universe and Tom Hanks and his computer-generated friends are making creepy work of Christmas, all the blocky two-dimensional fast-food fry cook SpongeBob SquarePants wants is a promotion. Bless him.

Before he can settle into management, ''The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie," his first, requires him to perform the occasional act of heroism. But the film, which is as economically made as it is primitively animated, ambles from adventure to adventure, taking nothing seriously, not even itself.

The opening sequence even pays tribute to the picture's own hype, as a gang of live-action pirates open a treasure chest and are thrilled to discover it contains nothing less than tickets to this movie. They sing the theme song and hit the multiplex, confirming that millions of children can't be wrong.

Like the Nickelodeon show that inspired it, ''The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie" understands that its animated hero is inherently weird, which makes him endearing and sort of chic. But the movie tries to get away with more than the TV show, boldly toying with its PG rating. This may explain why the two hicks SpongeBob and Patrick meet at the county line are almost bumping booties. It's funny, it's really bizarre, and it doesn't hold up the action.

After spending his entire TV life as the fry cook at the Krusty Krab on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, SpongeBob is ready for management at Mr. Krabs's spanking new Krusty Krab 2. But, inexplicably, Mr. Krabs entrusts SpongeBob's nebbishy neighbor and co-worker Squidward with the job.

There is time for SpongeBob to redeem himself. When King Neptune freezes Mr. Krabs for stealing his crown (therefore exposing his balding hair pattern), Bob drags along his best friend, the starfish Patrick, to retrieve it. They cross the border of Bikini Bottom, their undersea town, to Shell City, and then above ground. There all manner of live-action shenanigans await, including the totally flagrant appearance of David Hasselhoff as a life-guardian angel who runs along the beach, ''Baywatch"-style -- shirtless and in slo-mo.

Most children might think Hasselhoff makes a neat human Jet Ski for SpongeBob and Patrick. But over the years, they'll come to understand. He is to this movie what stars such as Milton Berle and Joan Rivers were to Muppet movies: a kitschy investment that appreciates with age.

''The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie" features the guest vocal stylings of Jeffrey Tambor as Neptune, Scarlett Johansson as his daughter Mindy, and Alec Baldwin as a churlish foe. They mingle well with series regulars such as Tom Kenny, who does SpongeBob's shrill voice, and Clancy Brown, who talks for Mr. Krabs.

Underneath the fun, the movie is a valentine to the joys and pains of capitalism. After all, SpongeBob has ''deals" with everything from Target to Cheese Nips. It turns out, for instance, that Mr. Krabs's conniving foe Plankton stole Neptune's crown and framed his rival, whose business success has made an envious schemer of little demonic Plankton. But before he's put in a deep freeze, Mr. Krabs exclaims, ''I love money!" (What else is Krusty Krab 2 but an ode to the inevitable ''SpongeBob" sequel?) And when he finds out his boss has been made a Popsicle, all Squidward can ask is, ''Who's going to sign my paychecks?" (This is the same cynic who, in one episode, told SpongeBob, ''I order the food. You cook the food. We do that for 40 years, then we die.")

In any case, this big-screen romp guarantees that SpongeBob will remain an icon of taking it easy for the young and stressed-out. The movie even ends with a speaker-busting, Twisted Sisterly rock-out that some overworked kids might appreciate on a lazy Saturday afternoon. I would not leave saving the world to SpongeBob, but I'd trust him unconditionally to flip my cheeseburgers.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie
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