Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants is one of the great TV cartoons of the modern era - funny, colorful, and energetic. The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, the cartoon's second adaptation to the big screen, is . . . well, a pretty good TV episode.

As always, the underwater setting of Bikini Bottom looks great. And the plot is serviceable: Our irrepressible hero SpongeBob (voice of Tom Kenny) is on a quest to recover the secret recipe for the Krabby Patty that has been pilfered by a flesh-and-blood pirate (Antonio Banderas).

The problem is, the visual and musical wit in this extraneously 3D movie is far better than the jokes in the dialogue, which tend to be obvious. When Mr. Krabs (voice of Clancy Brown) tells SpongeBob to "hold that thought," our porous Pollyanna takes him quite literally.

You can tell the script is short on punch lines by how often it resorts to poop and fart jokes, the last refuge of the desperate gag writer.

As the film gradually loses its buoyancy, the only highlight is the moment that SpongeBob, Patrick (voice of Coach's Bill Fagerbakke), and pals emerge on dry land as figurines. The hybrid of animation and live-action has real visual pop, as when The Wizard of Oz transitions to glorious color.

But this is also the point when the plot shoehorns in an incongruous, unlikable savior straight out of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book series. On another odd note, Sandy the squirrel (voice of Carolyn Lawrence) has a curiously hysterical edge in this film.

These characters' original cinematic treatment, 2004's The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, grossed more than $80 million. This one probably will be profitable, too, because SpongeBob is such a bankable star.

But by the time the end finally arrives, you realize you haven't laughed in quite a while and, instead, have been thinking about the chores you have to do after you leave the theater. As diversions go, that's pretty diluted.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water **1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Paul Tibbitt. With Antonio Banderas and the voices of Tom Kenny, Clancy Brown, Bill Fagerbakke. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 33 mins.

Parent's guide: PG (rude humor).

Playing at: Area theaters in 3D.EndText

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