November 19, 2004

Now that’s real money!

Who is the richest in the toy chest? Forbes magazine recently listed the top-earning fictional characters in 2003:

1: Mickey Mouse and Friends ($5.8 billion) 2: Winnie the Pooh and Friends ($5.6 billion) 3: Frodo Baggins, "Lord of the Rings" ($2.9 billion) 4: Harry Potter ($2.8 billion) 5: Nemo, "Finding Nemo" ($2 billion) 6: Yu-Gi-Oh! ($1.6 billion) 7: SpongeBob SquarePants ($1.5 billion) 8: Spider-Man ($1.3 billion) 9: Wolverine, X-Men ($900 million) 10: Pikachu, Pokémon ($825 million)

The name SpongeBob SquarePants says it all. He’s a sponge, and he wears square pants.

His creator, 42-year-old Steve Hillenburg, is not a sponge, and he does not wear square pants. And that’s where the dissimilarities end.

In fact, Hillenburg admits one of the reasons he likes his creation so much is that they share a lack of hipness.

The soft-spoken, publicity-shy Hillenburg is your basic nerd who had this idea about a naive cartoon character who lives in a pineapple at the bottom of the sea, working as a fry cook in a restaurant called The Krusty Krab in a township called Bikini Bottom. His best friend is a gray-matter-challenged starfish named Patrick.

In 1999, the idea became a TV show that now attracts a weekly audience of some 15 million viewers on Nickelodeon, which in turn has led to a featurelength movie called ‘‘The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.’’

The road-trip adventure, in which SpongeBob and Patrick embark on a dangerous mission to retrieve King Neptune’s stolen crown, opens today in an animation-filled marketplace dominated by ‘‘The Incredibles’’ and ‘‘The Polar Express.’’

Hillenburg, an avid surfer, says he fell in love with the sea when he began snorkeling off California’s Laguna Beach when he was 15. Upon graduation from Humboldt State University, he became a marine biologist, taught for three years at the Orange County Marine Institute and eventually gave up science to pursue a lifelong love of animation after getting a masters degree at the California Institute of the Arts.

He now calls himself a marine scientist who makes his living drawing cartoons.

Q: Why a sponge?

A: Well, I wanted to do a show about an innocent weirdo. I drew a lot of sea creatures when I started, and the sponge seemed to be the oddest of all of them. He’s not an outsider, but he’s sort of a weird guy. He’s a square nerd. Then I started thinking about the kidlike characters played by Jerry Lewis and Laurel and Hardy, and it all just came together.

Q: What was the ambition when you created SpongeBob?

A: We just hoped to make some really funny shorts.

Q: At what point did you realize that it had become not only bigger than you expected but bigger than you wanted?

A: It’s a double-edged sword. We love the fact that people love the show. I wouldn’t want it to sound like sour grapes. You can’t have it both ways. If you put something out there, and everybody likes it, you have to accept that. I personally like things before they get too big and get in everybody’s face. That’s the downside of success.

Q: But was there a moment when you realized the popularity of the character, and perhaps the merchandising of the character, was getting out of hand?

A: I think the moment when I realized it had gotten crazy was being on a surfing trip to Baja and seeing ceramic knockoffs of SpongeBob.

Q: For a publicity-shy guy like yourself, it must be awkward to suddenly be connected to something this famous.

A: I make animation because I like to draw and create things. I have no real interest to be on camera or to be a celebrity. It’s not that I don’t like people, but I like having my privacy.

Q: I’ve heard that you’ve resisted efforts to make SpongeBob a hipper character. Is that true?

A: Hip doesn’t make him funny. What’s funny about him is that he’s really not that hip. He’s well-meaning, but he’s got this goofy innocence and a lot of weird perceptions.

Q: Was a movie inevitable?

A: I never wanted to do a movie because I didn’t think that what we wanted to say needed to be in a movie. I like the short form for animation. Then this story idea came up that lent itself to a longer format. You can’t do a road trip adventure in a short form.

Q: Did you enjoy the moviemaking process compared to TV?

A: It was very exciting to be able to take more time to think about the story, the jokes and the drawings. The TV schedule is tight, and you don’t always have a lot of time to work on your drawings. I think the movie’s drawings are much superior than the TV show.

Q: Do you appreciate the irony that your type of 2-D animation (hand-drawn) has flourished at a time when 3-D animation (computer) has seemingly taken over the industry?

A: There’s a lot of talk about 2-D being dead, and I hope people don’t think that. Even Brad Bird is a proponent of 2-D. He would agree with me that it’s all about what you’re trying to say. There are many ways to tell a story, and what’s unique about animation is that there are many styles with which to tell a story.

SpongeBob facts

• SpongeBob SquarePants was created by California marine biologist Steve Hillenburg and debuted on Nickelodeon in 1999.

• ‘‘SpongeBob SquarePants’’ is the cable network’s top-rated kids cartoon, but 30 percent of viewers are adults.

• In 2003, SpongeBob merchandise generated $1.5 billion, up from $800 million in 2002.

• Only 60 half-hour episodes of the TV series have aired; production was halted in 2002 to work on the movie.

• The movie trailer uses footage from three well-known submarine films — ‘‘Das Boot’’ (1981), ‘‘The Hunt For Red October’’ (1990) and ‘‘U-571’’ (2000).

• The original plot of the film reportedly had SpongeBob going to rescue Patrick from a fisherman in Florida. This obvious reference to ‘‘Finding Nemo’’ was later revealed to be a joke on fans.

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