The cast of the Nickelodeon cartoon "SpongeBob SquarePants"… (Christopher M. Lynch / Nickelodeon )
In a sort of holiday miracle — brought about by the painstaking work of human hands — SpongeBob SquarePants gains a third dimension this week.
The cartoon that bears his name, which has remained firmly, even boldly, flat for its nine seasons (over 13 years), has been puppet-animated for the yuletide special "It's a SpongeBob Christmas." As antic as its model, and a little more magical and lifelike, it premieres Friday night on CBS, at the stay-up-late hour of 9:30 (following rebroadcasts of the old Rankin/Bass cartoon "Frosty the Snowman," the Bill Melendez "Frosty Returns" and "Hoops & Yoyo Ruin Christmas," starring characters created for Hallmark cards), and will repeat on its home network, Nickelodeon, Sunday, Dec. 9, at a child-friendly 7:30 p.m. (It is already available on DVD.)
Puppet animation has strong associations with Christmas, of course, owing largely to the pop-cultural entrenchment of the Rankin/Bass specials "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (which CBS will air Dec. 4), "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" (Dec. 11 on ABC and throughout December on ABC Family) and "The Year Without a Santa Claus" (also throughout December on ABC Family) in the 1960s and '70s, not to mention several generations of Norelco electric razor ads.
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As sympathetically and vividly reimagined by stop-motion animators Screen Novelties, "SpongeBob Christmas" both parodies and embraces the tradition, with Patchy the Pirate and his parrot, Potty, taking the narrator-host part played by Burl Ives' Sam the Snowman (in "Rudolph") and Fred Astaire's mailman (in "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town"); indeed, Patchy has been sculpted to resemble the Astaire puppet, which was sculpted to resemble Astaire, and begins the episode impersonating a mailman. Patchy is himself a kind of SpongeBob Christmas tradition, having hosted, in the live-action form of Tom Kenny (the voice of SpongeBob), the series' first and only other Christmas special, "Christmas Who?," a dozen years ago.
If it respects the form, including the inclusion of four sprightly musical numbers, it is somewhat less reverent about the details. Santa, when he appears (voiced by John Goodman), is not plush and plump but is a somewhat wrinkled old soul with age spots and a helper elf who picks Mr. Krab's pocket. Patchy has stolen a mail truck — the mailman is tied up in the back — in order to make sure his letter gets to Santa; at one point, stuck in the snow, he and his parrot contemplate eating one another.
Still, the season's essential message gets through: "Bring joy to the world. It's the thing to do," SpongeBob sings. "But the world does not revolve around you. Don't be a jerk; it's Christmas." (There is a new CD available, as well, "It's a SpongeBob Christmas! Album," that includes all the special's songs and more, written by Kenny and collaborator Andy Paley, who together provided the idea for the new special.)
The plot has Plankton, the evil copepod proprietor of the Chum Bucket, scheming to get on Santa's good list by altering the naughty-nice curve of Bikini Bottom by lacing Christmas fruitcake with the element jerktonium, which turns nice people mean. (Though it has no effect on SpongeBob, who is protected by his love of the holiday, his tiny brain and his big pure heart, he becomes the enthusiastic yet unwitting agent of its distribution.)
Because the characters occupy the same sculptural space that we do, there is a special enchantment to puppet animation. They are toys come to life, and that such animations are so clearly (even jerkily) handmade makes them feel more real. Even the most complex computer animations are just fancy versions of what artists do with ink and paint on celluloid or paper, or with digital ink and paint on a monitor: But for all the mathematical perfection of their apparent depth, there is no air there — nothing separating the bodies in space, or from the camera's eye. CGI surfaces may be worked to a fine grain, but they lack the actual texture of the fabric, foam and (hopefully fake) fur that make a puppet.
I felt I'd been somewhere, watching this. When it ended, I was not ready to leave.