After 15 years, there is finally a proper conclusion to – or, if all goes well, the kickstart to more episodes of – Hey Arnold! This much-loved cartoon first began running on Nickelodeon in 1996 (though Arnold himself first debuted as a dreamy Claymation character in 1988) and followed Arnold, a football-headed and good-hearted fourth-grader going through life in a city that’s a hybrid of Seattle, Washington, and Brooklyn, New York. Arnold lived with his grandparents in a boardinghouse, so a constant just-below-the-surface question was who were his parents, and where were they?
The last Hey Arnold! movie, The Journal, aired on Nickelodeon in 2002. Arnold finds a journal left behind by his parents which tells tales of derring-do in South America and ends on a cliffhanger. His parents just… disappear. Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie picks up a few years later (the gang is going into sixth grade, though Mr. Simmons is still their teacher). There’s a group that wants award a worthy kid with a trip to San Lorenzo — exactly the area Arnold’s parents disappeared in. Of course Arnold wins, and the whole main cast of kids (and resident love-torn bully Helga’s older sister, Olga, for some reason) and Mr. Simmons set off, though Arnold’s curiosity about his parents and an enemy of his parents’ give everyone a bit more than they bargained for.
One of the best things about the movie is how it’s set up. The exposition is set up and dealt with quickly–Arnold wakes up from a dream about his parents, and goes downstairs to find Grandpa and the boarders complaining about each other. We see Arnold and co. in school, and Mr. Simmons explains the trip. His classmates throw a party and put together a film of testimonials that Arnold gets to watch which shows Arnold’s character, some “new” takes on previous episodes, and exposes the main, secondary, and tertiary casts of the show. The exposition isn’t egregious, just enough for a new viewer to get the gist of what Hey Arnold! is all about. It’s also a nice dose of nostalgia for the adult fans, too.
The humor was also a strong point; it was in line with the often-subdued humour of the original show (and gives Pookie her time to shine with her outrageous antics), but it was also self-aware. Harold’s testimonial, for example, was, “I was a one-dimensional bully till Arnold showed me my sensitive side.” Of course, that’s exactly how it happened: he tormented Arnold a few times and then evolved into rather round (no pun intended!) character. Helga, upon seeing a statue of Arnold, brushes it off and says that she’s seen better, and the footage of Arnold’s good deeds for the testimonial video comes from footage that Helga was secretly shooting all along during the course of the original show.
When Arnold and his best friend Gerald discuss the contest that would so conveniently put Arnold in San Lorenzo, Gerald comments that, “It’s like this contest was made for you!” Again, self-aware–of course the contest was. But it’s actually more made for Arnold than the viewer may think: there is an unexpected twist that reveals that the contest was quite literally was made for Arnold, rather than it just being a bit of narrative convenience for writers knew they had to get him to South America somehow without worrying about viewers questioning a plot point. This turned out to be a nicely done reveal, and shows how much thought was put into this movie’s story.
The villain of this movie, an enemy of Arnold’s parents who wants to find and exploit the native people Arnold’s parents spent their time in South America assisting, also feels a little hammy and a cutout of a “bad guy,” but as Hey Arnold! was always a more grounded show, a villain of such magnitude was rare. A bully in the form of a fifth grader or mean ice cream man is the usual Hey Arnold! “villain” fare. The only part of the movie that felt strikingly “out of character” is when the villain, Lasombra, reveals himself and convinces Arnold’s friends that Arnold betrayed them. Everyone just kind of goes with it, which feels so unlike the friends that just recorded a video about how great a friend and how supportive Arnold is–especially if you’ve seen the older episodes and movies and really got to know these characters.
Another low point which probably would only bother older viewers returning to Hey Arnold! was the split of the A and B stories. Eventually, Arnold, Gerald, and Helga escape Lasombra’s clutches and make their way into the jungle in an attempt to track down Arnold’s parents. Meanwhile, the rest of their class, Mr. Simmons, and Olga, have to find a way to get free themselves, and I just… didn’t care about them. After waiting 15 years to see if Arnold would ever find his parents, I just wasn’t patient, even though there wasn’t actually anything wrong or even boring about the “B” story. A new viewer would presumably not be so focused on the main story that any diversions from it would make them antsy, simply because they haven’t had to wait for so long for an answer.
Earlier I mentioned that the familiar show did update itself in some ways; the kids are older, for one. The animation has also moved a hand-drawn or hand-drawn-looking style to flash or wholly computer animation. Besides the switch to the crisper format which causes changes naturally, some characters look a little squat, as if their proportions or details have been altered slightly. But it really doesn’t affect the quality or distort characters into anything dramatically different. I was impressed, too, by the care that was taken into creating backgrounds: the backgrounds in the show often had a sketchy look, as if they had been hand-colored with colored pencils, and although the new backgrounds don’t look as organic, they often resemble that specific style and use textures creatively. The only time the “new” animation felt jarring was a brief reveal done in 3D.
The background music and sound mixing also sounds updated, but from the same page as the old music and sound effects.
Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie is a satisfying conclusion to Arnold’s story and fans who have been waiting for closure on a few different questions will most likely be satisfied with what they get. The Jungle Movie is also accessible to new viewers as well, and balances nostalgia with brand new elements well. This movie also shows that Craig Bartlett and his team haven’t lost their touch; it excels in balancing humor and drama in the same way the original TV show did. Visually and audibly, things have updated with the times, but Hey Arnold! still has its individual character.
If you still have not had a chance to catch Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie, it can be watched on Nick.com after you provide your cable information. The first season of Hey Arnold! and additional bonus features for The Jungle movie are also available on Nickelodeon’s website.