Nickelodeon’s animated "Hey Arnold!" TV series, created by the Snee-Oosh animation house, is one of the better cartoon shows around.
It is entertaining in a low-key, kid-friendly mode, yet also far more psychologically complex than most cartoons. With its ensemble cast of quirky characters and its visual conceits — such as Arnold’s football-shaped head — it offers a stylized look at the human condition in a way that is both whimsical and grounded in reality.
Finally, Arnold himself is a great kid: decent, respectful, down to earth, and full of common sense. In his neighborhood full of eccentrics and kooky characters, Arnold is the calm eye in the hurricane — a fourth-grade Andy Griffith in the Big City. In fact, like Andy Griffith, Arnold spends much of his time solving the problems of those around him. (For more on this commendable series, see my related piece.)
Knowing and appreciating the series, I was delighted to discover that Nickelodeon was planning a theatrical movie version. An ad campaign on Nickelodeon made the movie look cool, with the promise of greater action and adventure than its 22-minute TV format allowed, which usually features two 11-minute cartoons.
Transitioning a cartoon to the Big Screen poses a number of challenges. The movie must tell a single, connected story many times the length of the TV format. It must introduce the show’s characters to non-fans. It must also "up the stakes" from the TV show; it must feel like a larger story with bigger consequences for our heroes than what we usually see.
The flip side of all these challenges are the opportunities film offers to go beyond the limitations of a TV cartoon. If you have to tell a longer story, you also get the chance to tell a longer story than what the TV format allows. If you have to reintroduce the characters, you also get to go deeper into their psyches. If you have to "up the stakes," you also get to "up the stakes." A theatrical film also offers the opportunity to improve the style of animation over what you see on television (e.g., by introducing new subtleties of line and shading).
The promos for Hey Arnold! The Movie made the premise of the film clear. Just as in the TV series, Arnold is a "fixer," so the movie gives him a really big situation to fix: He must save his whole neighborhood, which is in danger of being bulldozed to make way for a shopping mall by a tycoon who has city hall’s permission to do it.
This premise had the potential to provide exactly what a feature-length Hey Arnold! movie would need. A slow-paced establishing sequence could reveal the goodness of life in Arnold’s neighborhood (as The Fellowship of the Ring starts with a paean to life in the Shire). The movie could use this sequence to introduce Arnold as a humble solver of other people’s problems, as well as some of the regulars of the series and what makes them both quirky and dearhearted.
Then, when the threat to the neighborhood arose, the audience would know both what was at stake and what the neighborhood’s resources were. Finally, of course, Arnold would rally to the rescue, gathering others to his cause, and ultimately save the neighborhood.
Knowing the challenges and the potential rewards of a successful big-screen version of Arnold’s world, I went to the screening with anticipation.
Less than two minutes into the film, I knew we were in deep trouble.
The movie opens with about thirty seconds of idyllic neighborhood life. Then we get a terrifying few seconds of bulldozers destroying the neighborhood — something that never actually happens in the film.
After this disorienting, apocalyptic vision we pull back to meet out main characters. We see Arnold (Spencer Klein) walking along with his best friend, Gerald (Jamil Walker Smith), who has a hairdo worthy of Marge Simpson. Is Arnold solving one of Gerald’s problems? Not exactly. The two are about to play basketball. Gerald argues that Arnold’s basketball is flat. Arnold replies that it’s just a little low on air, at which point it gets punctured and becomes completely flat.
Suddenly, the news is announced that the whole neighborhood is going to be bulldozed to make way for a shopping mall. Arnold springs into action, declaring that the neighborhood must be saved.
The trouble is, unless you’re a fan of the TV series, you don’t yet know Arnold. You don’t know that he’s a sensitive kid, someone who is level-headed and who cares about others. When his neighborhood is threatened and he is thrust this abruptly into the action, Arnold comes across as bossy and demanding. There also is no explanation for why the whole neighborhood seems to rally to him. He hasn’t been established as a problem-solver!
At this point I was thinking to myself, "Okay. Maybe this is just a bad start. Maybe it will get better once we’re over the introductory matters."
Though it has its "up" moments (like when series regular Big Bob Pataki gets dyed with pickle juice during a fight so that he looks like the Incredible Hulk), the movie never substantially improves.
Despite its fourth-grader-beats-city-hall premise, the movie makes a slight gesture in the direction of realism, reflecting the fact that although a new shopping mall may be announced early, it will be some time before construction actually begins. Arnold has 30 days to stop the project.
The first 28 days are frittered away in a montage showing his failed neighborhood-rescue efforts. Then, when he has just two days left, everyone else gives up, concluding that the neighborhood cannot be saved, no matter what. It is at this point, ten minutes into the film, that we reach the emotional low point. Everyone has given up, and only now we begin to see a series of vignettes meant to show why the neighborhood is worth saving in the first place.
By putting these sequences here instead of at the beginning, the movie simply adds salt to the wound, making the audience feel more and more depressed instead of allowing them to start out appreciating life in Arnold’s neighborhood the way they needed to.
Normally, the emotional low point comes halfway to two-thirds of the way through the film, after the audience has learned on an emotional level what we have that is worth saving in the final act of the film. In Hey Arnold! The Movie, everything is front-loaded and in reverse order. It makes no sense in cinematic terms. We see the threat and seem to see its victory before we even learn the value of what is being threatened.
The characters, similarly, are completely overwhelmed by the action. One character, Helga (Francesca Smith), has an established love-hate (or perhaps hate-love) relationship with Arnold that gets a bit of a buildup here, but Arnold’s nature as a well-balanced problem-solver is completely overtaken by the plot. His best friend, Gerald, is a blank slate with obligatory overtones of African-American coolness. Other characters are either rendered completely unintelligible out of their usual TV context, or reduced to brief cameos or utterly silent status as "extras" in the movie. There is none of the psychological complexity that makes the small-screen series worthwhile.
Even once we get past the first part of the movie, the buildup toward the climax is long and slow. It never really grabs your attention, and seems like a jumbled sequence of breathy, dramatic events with little sense of building toward a climax. The audience is too busy being bored to really pay attention to them.
The plot is largely paint-by-the-numbers, with obvious cues to the audience placed well before their intended payoff.
There is a large amount of continuity with the series, but because the movie has not been set up in such a way to introduce first time patrons to the series, a whole string of series "in-jokes" fall completely flat.
The movie even seems to ape the TV series in having a sparse musical score, compared to the lush score normally given to animated films.
The film’s visual dimension is even worse. Whereas most TV-to-movie conversions try to up the quality of the animation being used (e.g., by introducing the shading common in Japanese anime), the animation in Hey Arnold! The Movie is virtually identical to what we see on the small screen. It looks, annoyingly, like what you’d see on a 13-inch screen being blown up to fill a 50-foot screen.
All that said, the film does manage, unlike many TV-to-movie adaptations, to tell a single, connected tale that is much longer than what TV allows. Unfortunately, the movie is so consumed with driving the tense, convoluted plot forward that it never has time to step back and smell the roses that make "Hey Arnold!" stand out among animated TV shows.
The film’s creators seem to have latched onto the fact that a movie must be "bigger" than the TV show as their guiding principle, but in their efforts to tell a more plot-intensive, action-packed story, they leave out completely the psychological depth and character development that made the TV series successful. Indeed, the one stab that the movie makes at character development is completely undone in the end.
What was most striking to me in seeing the film for the first time in a preview screening was the utter silence coming from the audience. I saw the movie with a group at least two-thirds composed of kids (three-quarters being more likely). Yet they only intermittently laughed at things on the screen. Most of the time they were simply silent, not knowing what to do. After the halfway mark in the film, the dominant noise coming from them was the murmur of childhood fidgetiness. The audience was still mostly, completely silent. Before the closing credits rolled, a large number of parents were ushering their kids out of the theatre.
Given the number of missteps the filmmakers made, it looks as if the filmmmakers simply had no idea whatsoever how to adapt the "Hey Arnold!" TV series for the Big Screen. There are missteps at every turn.
According to some accounts, Hey Arnold! The Movie was originally conceived as a theatrically-released movie, then scaled back to be a made-for-TV movie, and then scaled back up again to be a theatrically-released picture. Perhaps this jumbled production process left the Snee-Oosh folks with too many hoops to jump through. Maybe they did know what to do to make a good Big Screen movie but were hamstrung by the back-and-forth process. Or maybe not.
After delivering Rugrats: The Movie, Rugrats in Paris, and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, the Nickelodeon/Paramount collaboration has made its first real misstep. It doesn’t work. It shouldn’t have been made — or, at least, shouldn’t have been released on the Big Screen. Whether Nick/Paramount learns from its mistake with such future big-screen adaptations as The Wild Thornberrys (Christmas 2002), we shall see.
Admittedly, much of what we see in Hey Arnold! The Movie would work better on television, in part because the movie’s failure to properly establish its hero, cast, and setting wouldn’t matter so much on the series’ small-screen home turf. If you already know Arnold and the other characters, the weaknesses aren’t so glaring. Even as a made-for-TV movie it would seem rushed and abrupt, but it would come off far better.
On the Big Screen, though, the movie is flat and lifeless as can be. As flat as Arnold’s basketball in the opening sequence.
It’s not even football shaped… like his head.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.