“Are ya ready, kids?”
“Aye Aye, Captain!”
Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Spongebob Squarepants, and he has done so for twenty years. First created by Stephen Hillenburg after a pilot in 1997, Spongebob Squarepants managed to swim right into a Saturday morning block, dragging Nickelodeon out of the murky depths and allowing for a world to follow the adventures of a sponge who works in a fast food restaurant. The premise, although crazy and farfetched, has managed to capture the hearts of children and adults alike, creating a very unexpected demographic. Of the 2.2 million viewers roughly per episode, over 40% were over the age of eighteen which, in later years, led the residents of Bikini Bottom to air in late night slots on MTV and around the world.
My first encounter with this series was as a young child, checking it out on TG4, Ireland’s Irish language channel. Even though at a young age I hadn’t a clue what the characters were saying, I was enthralled by the character presence and the zany interactions. Unlike many children growing up in the late 90s and early 00s, because of this Irish dub, I saw very little of it.
Instead I opted for the English language cartoons on The Den, only flipping to TG4 for the occasional series that aired in English: Duel Masters; Teen Titans; and The Batman, for example. In fact, it was only a couple of months ago that I actually saw my first episode in English after checking out a cast table read. Sure, I had seen clips here and there; however this was a new take from an adult perspective. The series still feels as fresh as when I tuned in all those years ago. As far as I can recall, Irish television has never actually aired the English version of Spongebob Squarepants, in all these years.
So what makes Spongebob Squarepants so popular? What made it overtake Pokémon in the first month of its Saturday airing? There are some interesting things there to note. Hillenburg always wanted to focus on visual storytelling. So while many cartoons worked script and joke first, Spongebob Squarepants had a rough story thought out. Then storyboard artists mapped out the visuals first. This allowed the crew to play with visual jokes. It also gave them the artistic freedom to divert from the linear structure of a script. This extended to the animators and voice actors, who dealt in a great deal of vocal improvisation. Spongebob Squarepants felt fresh, loose and down to earth.
Hillenburg moved to a more executive role after the show’s third season. Many believe this caused a major dip in quality for the series. That is debatable. Nevertheless, the series didn’t flop, as many shows would. It spawned musicals, films and countless items of merchandise. Those new episodes work with a modern audience, but older episodes still resonate and fit with a modern viewing. Some shows age terribly; however the fantasy stage that allows our core cast to play out their tales here feels as relevant as it did when the series first aired.
The animation of the series is strong and surrealist in its style. A team of animators in California worked to create the episodes before sending them to be finished by animators in South Korea. Episodes often combine traditional animation with stop motion. Despite, seeming simplistic, the show has some very detailed fluidity of motion and timing that needs to be perfect to land each joke. It is the animation combined with a love for storytelling that crosses generations and fuels our imaginations of an underwater world. The characters feel three dimensional at this point, delving constantly into ground-breaking territory.
He lives in a pineapple under the sea. Over the past twenty years, we have lived there with him, following his constantly refreshing journeys. So, if you have never checked out Spongebob Squarepants, do so; it is a gem worth viewing alone or with your children. It is just a feel-good show. Even now, after Hillenburg’s passing in 2018, he left behind a legacy in animation that will never be forgotten.