Since 2004, fans of the beloved, classic Nickelodeon animated series Hey Arnold! have had to live with an incomplete show. The last episode, aired so many years ago, was a cliffhanger, and a proper resolution for the series seemed to be out of reach. For fans, the proposition that there was never going to be closure on so many unanswered questions about the fate of the characters was a difficult proposition to reconcile with (as far as TV cliffhangers go). But for the cast and creative forces who brought the shows to air, the inability to leave viewers with a satisfactory ending that tied every loose thread they had carefully plotted was, to say the least, an unideal situation.
And that frustration—for both sides of the show—is coming to an end. Next week, Hey Arnold! returns to Nickelodeon for The Jungle Movie, a years-in-the-making event that finally answers the unresolved questions left from the early years of the aughts. Anticipation for the movie—and its promise to show the fate of Arnold’s long-lost parents, primarily—has been high, and Nick has been playing up the nostalgia that fans have for the show with great fervor at both San Diego Comic Con and New York Comic Con this year.
But let’s back up for a moment. For a generation of kids coming of age in the 1990s, Hey Arnold! was a quirky, different kind of cartoon. Decidedly metropolitan, decidedly inner-city, and decidedly contemporary on the surface, this cartoon about a titular football-headed boy and his friends reveled in exploring the complicated lives of its animated denizens beyond the titular protagonists. While a comedy to be sure, there was a certain melancholy that permeated the show. Off-beat and seemingly stereotypical character types—the wacky grandpa, the crazy foreign neighbors, the bullies—each had complex inner lives with painful stories of love and loss woven into the fabric of their being. And, in its own way, Hey Arnold! was a tribute and celebration to the loners and outcasts of the world.
“The point of the series is empathy,” says creator Craig Bartlett, during a recent interview. To support this notion, I mentioned a personal revelation about the character of Stoop Kid. For those in the know, the timeless, endlessly memetic mantra of Stoop Kid’s afraid to leave his stoop! acts more than just a taunt in the episode. It hints at the character’s vulnerable self and his insecurities about the broader world. His existence is ridiculed. And during a particularly despondent moment during the early episode in which he is featured, the community joins together to make fun of Stoop Kid’s plight. After the humiliation, Stoop Kid lets out an incredible sob that is just heartrending. But as a kid, I laughed at this moment. It was ridiculous. This guy seemed absolutely bizarre.
It was only after a rewatch many years where my feelings turned towards Stoop Kid. He wasn’t bizarre, he was helpless and scared. I no longer laughed at him; I cried with him. “That was our edge, the emotion. And for something like Stoop Kid, you thought it was funny, you thought, what a weird character. Then you watch as an adult, and you’re like, ‘This is really intense,’” Bartlett says.
Moving on from our nostalgic jaunt, I asked Craig if having so much attention for the Jungle Movie, and to have Hey Arnold re-emerge as a part of the greater cultural zeitgeist, was a surreal feeling. Bartlett agrees: “To me, the most amazing thing about this how much stronger the response is then when Hey Arnold first came out. When the show came out, it did great. Millions of kids watched it, people were happy; it was a success. But compared to now, the love that people feel for the show is much stronger.”
Why is this the case?
“The kids who watched the show grew up. And the real kick for me is that I can’t believe how much stronger and articulate the love for the show is,” Bartlett commented.
One of the hallmarks of throughout the original run of Hey Arnold! was the use of kids to voice the kid characters, an untypical practice. This tradition has continued for the Jungle Movie as well, with Mason Vale Cotton and Benjamin “Lil’ P-Nut” Flores, Jr. taking over the roles of Arnold and Gerald, respectively. (Francesca Marie Smith Helga and Anndi McAfee, veterans from the original series, return as Helga and Phoebe.) “Both those kids were great finds,” says Bartlett. “All the actors gave incredibly layered and nuanced performances. The studio has really grown up since I left it [in 2002]. They’ve gotten much bigger and have a big casting department. They found really great kids to replace the actors who had come before. It’s kind of shocking how accurate we were able to get with the sound-alikes.”
So, while the new actors got the characters from a tonal perspective, could they also spiritually get them?
“There was a lot of time to talk about it. Trying to get the kids to understand the spirit of the thing is to just talk about it with them. And when we record—and I always try to do it as a group thing—I always go in and record on the actor’s side of the glass. It was a team effort.”
I asked Craig if he was surprised that Nickelodeon would green-light this project at all, or that fan pressure and demands to provide a proper finale would make The Jungle Movie an inevitable prospect.
“You would think that the fan support would do the trick, but that’s never a given. I thought it was great that there are these people creating petitions and writing letters. But there was a long stretch where I thought nothing would ever come of it. Finally, it just seemed like the time was right. The window opened and the opportunity came, and I just jumped in. I said, ‘Look, if we’re going to reboot Hey Arnold!, we have to do the Jungle Movie. And they didn’t know what that was. Right on the spot, I made a powerpoint that I called “Arnold 101” that laid out what happened during the 100 episodes of the series.
“I finished by talking about Hey Arnold!: The Movie, where Helga tells Arnold that she loves him [a recurring theme], and how that thread was supposed to be tied in the Jungle Movie. He was supposed to tell her how he felt. But that was left as a big, unanswered question that fans really wanted to know.”
This, sounds a bit like a pilot to a rebooted new series, right?
“Yeah, absolutely! By the time the movie ends, things are set-up really well for a season 6. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. But if it does, everything is teed up.”
Hey Arnold: The Jungle Movie premieres November 24 at 7 PM (EST)
And for those that need to binge and catch up on the show before the movie’s premiere, fear not! Nick has you covered:
NickSplat, TeenNick’s programming block dedicated to Nickelodeon’s legendary library of hits from the ‘90s and 2000s, will celebrate Hey Arnold! throughout the month of November with fan-favorite episodes every night from 12:00 a.m.-1:00 a.m. (ET/PT). In addition, NickSplat will treat fans to a marathon of every single Hey Arnold! episode beginning Friday, Nov. 17, through Friday, Nov. 24, from 11:00 p.m.–6:00 a.m.(ET/PT). Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie will premiere Friday, Nov. 24, at 7:00 p.m. (ET/PT) on Nickelodeon and encore Friday, Nov. 24, at 11:00 p.m. (ET/PT) and Friday, Dec. 1, at 12:00 a.m. (ET/PT) on TeenNick.
AJ Frost is an editor/writer based out of Phoenix, AZ.