Classic stop-motion Christmas fun, SpongeBob style. Nickelodeon has released SpongeBob SquarePants: It's a SpongeBob Christmas!, the 2012 stop-motion special that's set to air on CBS on November 23rd, 2012, the day after Thanksgiving. I'm sure there's some kind of marketing logic to releasing this rather elaborate, funny little special on DVD weeks before it airs on network television, but it escapes me (early jump on Christmas buying? Promo for the network airing? Promo for games and toy tie-ins?). Luckily, SpongeBob SquarePants: It's a SpongeBob Christmas! is on par with your better-than-average SpongeBob SquarePants episodes, with the seasonal background and particularly the sensational real (not computer-faked) stop-motion work here making this a must-buy for some lucky kid this Christmas. Fun extras help make SpongeBob SquarePants: It's a SpongeBob Christmas! a cinch, you Grinch.
Patchy the Pirate (voice talent of Tom Kenny), hijacking a Christmas mail truck, hosts and narrates this SpongeBob Christmas special. While SpongeBob SquarePants (voice talent of Tom Kenny) greets a new Christmas morning with a song (Santa's Eyes), Plankton (voice talent of Mr. Lawrence) has a much less benign plan to ring in the New Year. Plankton has discovered a new element, Jerktonium, which he plans on feeding into his Jerk Maker 9000, a combination fruitcake oven/shooter, lacing the delectable cakes with Jt, which should cause everyone to become a jerk. That way, by simple process of elimination, Plankton and his previous year's evil deeds won't look so bad, and Santa will have to bring him some presents...instead of the coal Plankton always gets in his stocking. There's only one problem: the Jerk Maker 9000 doesn't seem to work. Plankton shot SpongeBob with several laced fruitcakes, but he remained as sunny and kind as always, prompting Plankton to give SpongeBob the keys to the 9000 in disgust. Naturally, clueless SpongeBob carries out Plankton's plan anyway, turning the whole of Bikini Bottom into a chaotic, rioting jerk-fest, so Plankton has to turn to Plan B: MechaSpongeBob, a clanking metal robot ready to destroy Christmas.
An affectionate take-off on all those beloved Rankin/Bass Christmas stop-motion TV specials, filtered through the silly/sick humor of SpongeBob SquarePants, SpongeBob SquarePants: It's a SpongeBob Christmas! is a welcome return to form for those fans of the Nickelodeon toon series who lament the sometimes scattershot feel of the last few seasons. I've written way too many reviews for SpongeBob DVDs (you can read those here), so I won't go into any background on the show's aesthetics or format, but I must write that I was more than a little apprehensive when it came to sitting down to review this entry (since so many of these new Christmas TV specials, quite frankly, stink)...and more than pleasantly surprised at how well SpongeBob SquarePants: It's a SpongeBob Christmas! came off.
Like any SpongeBob toon, SpongeBob SquarePants: It's a SpongeBob Christmas! has its share of expected juvenile silliness; throwaway jokes that are so stupid they make the kids groan and laugh at the same time. When Patchy pilots that mail truck down the icy road and hollers, "There's a fork in the road!", that's exactly what pops his tire and sends him hilariously spinning out of control: a three-tined fork (the stop-motion effect here is beautiful). And when completely brainless Patrick (voice talent of Bill Fagerbakke) wants to set a trap for Santa Claus to keep Christmas going all year long, you can be assured that Patrick will fall into his own snare. Those kinds of childish-but-funny gags are de rigueur for SpongeBob...as are the sly, smart, deadpan jabs that still make this 15-year-old toon adult-friendly viewing. Critically, SpongeBob SquarePants: It's a SpongeBob Christmas!'s central gag―fruit cake is so hateful a Christmas tradition it literally turns people into jerks―is clever enough ("Hot from the oven and full of lovin!" Plankton booms), topped by the hilarious transformation of the poisoned fruitcake victims, their heads momentarily dazzled by a furious whirl of Christmas lights, accompanied by a loud Bronx cheer.
But plenty of other jokes and gags keep the pace up here―something that doesn't always happen in these later SpongeBob special episodes. Plankton's "Naughty Deeds" list has "littering" at number one, followed by "world domination," "puppy taunting," "'mispelling' words," and "neglect grooming." A SpongeBob trademark, the bystanders throwaway gag, has Frankie wishing Johnnie a 'Merry Christmas,' before he whips an iceball in his face. Patchy steals a mail truck and trusses up the postal worker ("I gave Mr. Mailman the day off!" he offers as we briefly see the frightened worker gagged in the back). Starving Patchy sees Potty as a plate of buffalo wings (starving Potty sees Patchy's head as a birdseed cone), before he hallucinates meeting with Santa (it's actually a vicious polar bear, salting Patchy). No Christmas TV special would be complete without Santa (voice talent of John Goodman), so when he shows up, he's right out of the sick SpongeBob playbook: possibly the grossest kids' movie Santa ever, with a bald head covered in liver spots, rubbery, grouper balloon lips, and baggy, goggling eyes that look like hard-boiled eggs. Santa's no hero saving the day here, either; when the marauding tin SpongeBob breathes fire like MechaGodzilla, Santa is the first to deadpan, "I'm outta here," before he skedaddles. Best of all, the makers of SpongeBob SquarePants: It's a SpongeBob Christmas! deliver all of these funny situations in first-rate puppet stop-motion, getting the Rankin/Bass look down pat (they even drop in some cell animation-looking snow effect that's R/B letter-perfect). In the included bonus featurette detailing SpongeBob SquarePants: It's a SpongeBob Christmas!'s production, they don't specify how long this animation took (the parade sequence is especially good, as SpongeBob walks by transforming jerks), but it's nice to see such an elaborate effort backed up by a steady stream of jokes worthy of the process.
Beautiful. The anamorphically-enhanced, 1.78:1 widescreen transfer for SpongeBob SquarePants: It's a SpongeBob Christmas! is digital perfection: bright, vibrant colors; a razor-sharp image, and absolutely no compression issues whatsoever.
Same for the Dolby Digital 5.1 stereo audio mix, which has discreet separation effects, and crystal clarity (and a healthy recording level). English close-captions are available.
First, there's a behind-the-scenes featurette of the making of SpongeBob SquarePants: It's a SpongeBob Christmas!, where the crew discusses the thinking that went behind the decision to utilize stop-motion, as well as the technical problems encountered. It runs 7:19. Next, you can run a full animatic of the special alongside the finished product (fun for animation buffs). Next, two of the featured songs, Santa's Eyes and Hot Fruitcake can be accessed via MP3, and finally, a Yule Log loop is available (I love the old-timey animation of it...but couldn't someone have put a good 10 or 15 minutes worth of music on it, instead of the same 45-second loop? It defeats the whole purpose of the gag, and it ticked off the kids fast...unless that was the point).
I don't know if SpongeBob SquarePants: It's a SpongeBob Christmas! will become the TV classic watched year after year that the production teams hopes it will be...but it's good enough for right now. Plenty of funny gags and beautiful stop-motion animation add up to a Christmas winner here. I'm highly recommending SpongeBob SquarePants: It's a SpongeBob Christmas!.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.