Why the robot voiced by Awkwafina may be the real baddie in SpongeBob's latest odyssey

By Omar Sanchez
March 03, 2021 at 09:00 AM EST

Fixing life's biggest problems in the watery metropolis of Bikini Bottom can't get any easier in 2021 — or so it seems.

On SpongeBob's latest odyssey made for the big screen, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run (out on Paramount+ March 4), our favorite sea critter and the gang have to face their most narcissistic opponent yet: King Poseidon. The sea god is set on draining the snail population (yelp, Gary!) for the sake of his own skincare. But fear not, Sandy has built an advanced robot named Otto, voiced in the film by Awkwafina, that can get just about anything you need at a moment's notice.

Except for, well, your happiness. And... Gary.

So, wait, what's this robot good for anyway?

Tom Kenny has been the legendary voice behind SpongeBob SquarePants since the show's inception in 1999. Recently, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the cast has had to record SpongeBob shows via Zoom, a routine that Kenny says saps the palpable energy of being in the room.

"Doing these SpongeBob shows and riffing off each other, that's energy that happens naturally when you're all together," Kenny tells EW. "When it's on Zoom, you kind of got to punch through that wall."

Credit: Paramount Animation

On the Run starts like many other days in Bikini Bottom, with Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) diabolically plotting to get the secret Krabby Patty formula with his computer wife, Karen. Lo and behold, Plankton doesn't have to do much of the legwork, as Sandy (Carolyn Lawrence) is about to pitch Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) on Otto as an automated manager that "can make cold heartless decisions because it doesn't have a heart." Plus: it doesn't need a salary.

Mr. Krabs is sold and hires the ruthless robot. But not long after joining the staff, Otto turns on his boss and fires Mr. Krabs, sending the crustacean into a tailspin of self-doubt. His worries are later exacerbated when SpongeBob abandons his post to go find Gary, who's been "snail-napped" to become Poseidon's anti-aging loofah.

Seizing the opportunity to hurt the Krusty Krab further, Plankton tricks SpongeBob and Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) into having Otto drive them to Atlantic City, a land of riches and instant gratification where Poseidon resides. Otto later leaves them in the dust at Goner Gulch, a ghost town where they run into the one and only Danny Trejo.

Credit: Paramount Animation

Throughout the movie, Otto helps the gang reach their goals, but whenever the robot is around, it seems to erode their natural trust in each other, and, ultimately, in themselves.

"I feel like the people that are sad in our world, or angry, it's because they're not connected to their community," Carolyn Lawrence tells EW. "If you want to just pull into your garage and not say hi to the neighbor, I firmly believe that when push comes to shove, you're missing some of the joys of life that you get from that, from reaching out and being connected that way."

Tim Hill, writer and director of On the Run, also sees "a certain amount of cynicism rising in our culture" borne out of shaming people online, a form of bullying that can especially affect kids stuck at home during the pandemic. "It's very important that people don't second guess themselves. They just should be who they are," Hill adds.

In SpongeBob's ultimate moment of weakness while facing Poseidon, it isn't Otto who's there to tie up loose ends, but his friends, who wax nostalgic about what it was like to meet SpongeBob when they were innocent kids learning the ways of the world at Camp Coral. Sponge on the Run is available to stream alongside Spongebob's first-ever spin-off series, Kamp Koral: Spongebob's Under Years, launching on the same day.

On the Run stresses the importance of self-confidence and self-love, something that Fagerbakke says was embedded into the fabric of SpongeBob SquarePants since the very beginning by creator Stephen Hillenburg, whom the movie is dedicated to.

"[SpongeBob's] got this veracity to him that is so embraceable and lovely and hilarious," Fageerbakke says. "That's one of the things that really struck me when we did the goofy pilot that none of us knew would even be produced. I was struck by how his friend [Patrick] really loves him. That's cool! There's was something elemental about that. The real value in the hero is always SpongeBob."