The character of Arnold originated in a comic strip as well as a trilogy of claymation shorts: “Arnold Escapes From Church,” “The Arnold Waltz” and “Arnold Rides His Chair,” the last of which aired during an episode of Sesame Street. In the shorts, Arnold is a 5-year-old boy with a hyperactive imagination who doesn’t say a word but simply gets lost in his fantastical daydreams.
At the time, the creator of the shorts, Craig Bartlett, was working on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. In 1990, he got a job on one of the first three Nicktoons, Rugrats, as the story editor during its first season. He directed the last episode of the first season’s run, and he even came up with one of the most recognizable inanimate objects from any cartoon, Angelica’s beloved doll with its trademark wild blond hair, Cynthia, who was introduced in the episode, “Graham Canyon.”
It was while working on Rugrats that Craig met many people who’d later work with him on Hey Arnold!, which began production in the spring of 1994 with a pilot simply titled “Arnold.” It aired in theaters before the movie, Harriet the Spy, and was essentially a shorter version of what would later become an episode during the series’ first season entitled “24 Hours to Live.” The series officially went into production in 1995, and the first episode, “Downtown as Fruits/Eugene’s Bike” premiered on Nickelodeon on October 7, 1996.
Craig had a clear vision for Arnold, which he aimed to depict in that first half-hour episode: Arnold, through no fault of his own, lands himself in situations where he ultimately decides he needs to make things right, and he does so through his honesty, compassion and strong moral compass. As mentioned, in his inception, Arnold was strictly a quiet kid with a rich inner life, based on Craig himself, who was an active daydreamer as a child. Each episode was originally going to open with Arnold daydreaming and being pulled out of that daydream by someone shouting, “Hey, Arnold!” We see that in both “Downtown as Fruits” and “Eugene’s Bike” with Arnold imagining himself surfing with dinosaurs around him and being on a jungle safari, respectively. However, Craig quickly did away with this premise, as the 30-second long daydreams cut into the 11 minutes they needed to devote to a full three-act story.
Thus, while Arnold still occasionally daydreamed throughout the series, he became known for being the voice of reason, the one kid who anyone, whether kid or adult, could go to for advice. His calm rationality, along with his ever-positive attitude to always look on the bright side, allows him to see the good in people and encourage them to never give up no matter what. Considering how uplifting he is, it’s no wonder his best friend, the smooth-talking keeper of urban legends, Gerald Johanssen, would often commend Arnold by telling him, “You’re a bold kid.”
One of the many things that makes Hey Arnold! so memorable and so enjoyable to watch even 20 years later is the fact that it has a rich ensemble of diverse, fleshed out characters. There’s the eclectic group of boarders who live with Arnold and his grandparents, wise-cracking Phil and downright kooky Gertie, at the Sunset Arms boarding house, including the lazy, swindling Oskar Kokoshka and his unhappy wife, Suzie, the short demolitionist, Ernie Potts and, last but not least, Mr. Hyunh, who, with Arnold’s help, reunited with his daughter in one of the most profound episodes of the series, “Arnold’s Christmas.”
There are also many characters who make up the neighborhood, including Arnold’s fourth-grade teacher, the sensitive Mr. Simmons, the stickler of P.S. 118, Principal Wartz, the progressive butcher, Mr. Green, the singing mailman, Harvey, the kid-hating ice cream man, the Jolly Olly Man, the elusive superhero, Monkey Man and the infamous kid who’s afraid to leave his stoop, Stoop Kid, to name a few.
You also can’t forget Arnold’s classmates, such as overweight and sometimes bully, Harold Berman, upbeat but a perpetual jinx, Eugene Horowitz, paranoid Sid, lanky, southern, lemon pudding-loving Stinky Peterson, rich, snobby, fashion-obsessed Rhonda Wellington Lloyd, her best friend, insect-aficionado Nadine, overly sweet and Miss Perfect, Lila Sawyer, bizarre Brainy, crazy Curly, meek and intelligent Phoebe Heyerdahl and, of course, the one, the only, Helga G. Pataki.
I could devote an entire blog post discussing why Helga is one of my favorite cartoon characters of all time, but for now, I’ll try to be as succinct as possible in my praise of her. It’s worth noting that Craig and the entire Hey Arnold! crew did an outstanding job at creating a character whom the audience can not only sympathize with but relate to, despite her being a tenacious bully. We see throughout the series just how depressing Helga’s home life is, which makes her deep-rooted anger and aching need to passionately express herself all the more justified. Furthermore, it isn’t until the episode, “Helga on the Couch” (which is easily one of the best episodes of the series, not to mention one of Craig’s favorites as well) that we learn the first person to ever show Helga true kindness is none other than Arnold, hence the moment her obsession with him is born.
Helga’s love for Arnold is, in my opinion, one of the biggest hooks of the series (which, again, I’ll have to discuss in a separate, Helga-centric blog post, lest I go off on a tangent). However, what really sets Hey Arnold! apart from other kids’ shows is its emotional, character-driven storytelling. The show masterfully blends realism and surrealism with its realistic depiction of what it’s like to be a kid coupled with its exciting urban legend tales. Perhaps most remarkably of all, though, is that the show does a great job of reminding us that while there are many wonderful things about childhood, there are also hardships to overcome along the way. It’s all part of growing up.
After a solid 100 half-hour episodes, Hey Arnold! ended its original run in 2004. The final episode produced was a one-hour special, “The Journal,” which was meant to be a prequel to a Hey Arnold! film called The Jungle Movie. The episode ends with a cliffhanger in which Arnold discovers a map in the back of his father’s journal, opening the door for him to set out on an epic journey to find his long-lost parents and tie up the thread of a storyline introduced in another pivotal episode, “Parents’ Day.”
Despite the show’s cancellation, the fans’ undying love for Hey Arnold! only intensified throughout the years. It’s thanks largely to staunch fan interest as well as the fact that many people who grew up watching the show are now executives at Nickelodeon that we’re finally getting the long-awaited Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie.
Originally intended to be a theatrical film, The Jungle Movie unfortunately never saw the light of day after Hey Arnold!: The Movie, formerly meant to be a three-part TV movie titled Arnold Saves the Neighborhood, did poorly at the box office. As a result, The Jungle Movie was axed, and after years of fans relentlessly demanding answers to questions this movie would, indeed, answer, Nickelodeon announced in November 2015 that Hey Arnold! would be returning with a TV movie. In March 2016, it was officially announced that Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie was greenlit for production with a two-part, two-hour movie. Later this year, it was revealed that the majority of the original voice actors will be reprising their roles, and the characters have been updated with slightly new designs.
Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie is set to premiere on Nickelodeon around Thanksgiving 2017, and I can honestly say I couldn’t be more excited about it. It just goes to show how much of a lasting impact Hey Arnold! has imprinted upon its fans, the reminder to never doubt the power of believing in yourself and what you can do. On that note, I say, happy 20th anniversary, Arnold, you fantastic football head!