Television

Unpacking the Emotional Journey of Hey Arnold! The Jungle Movie

This post contains major spoilers for Hey Arnold! The Jungle Movie, not to mention flagrant gushing and fangirling, so read at your own discretion.

After years of waiting and hoping and signing petitions and writing letters to Nickelodeon, the Hey Arnold! fans finally got much-desired closure when the long-awaited Hey Arnold! The Jungle Movie premiered on Nickelodeon this past Thanksgiving weekend. I’ve been eagerly following the news leading up to its premiere since the announcement back on November 23, 2015 that Nickelodeon had green-lit a brand new Hey Arnold! TV movie. In March 2016, it was officially announced that Hey Arnold! would be returning with a two-part, two-hour movie, none other than The Jungle Movie. As more and more details about the made-for-TV movie emerged (e.g. that the majority of the original voice cast would be returning), my excitement only grew.

At this year’s San Diego Comic Conic, fans were treated to an exclusive first look at The Jungle Movie with a clip featuring the town of Hillwood coming together to show Arnold a special video package they’d put together, all in hopes of him winning a class trip to San Lorenzo, a fictional city in Central America, where Arnold’s parents had long since disappeared. It was an organic way to bring back many well-known characters from the series, from Stoop Kid to Monkey Man to Dino Spumoni to the elusive Pigeon Man. I honestly watched that clip more times than I can count, as it managed to completely capture the charm of the original series, only solidifying the fact that the movie itself was going to be incredible.

The first trailer dropped at New York Comic Con, and again, I lost track of how many times I watched it. More and more plot details emerged with each subsequent trailer. As the movie drew closer, I watched any and every interview I could find featuring the voice actors and the show’s creator, Craig Bartlett, who insisted that this movie would be fan heaven and check all the boxes by answering the biggest questions fans have always wanted to know, namely:

  1. What’s Arnold’s last name?
  2. What happened to Arnold’s parents?
  3. How does Arnold feel about Helga?

Craig himself had already answered the first question years ago (Spoiler alert: It’s Shortman), but it was still a fun nod to the audience to get official confirmation. As for the other two questions, Craig and everyone who worked on this film—a combination of original crew members and a new generation of artists and writers and producers who grew up with Hey Arnold!—ensured this movie would give fans the closure we wanted, while also introduce these characters to Nickelodeon’s main demographic of 6- to 11-year-olds who likely have never seen the show before, paving the way for a potential continuation of the series with a season 6.

I’ve been a long-time fan of the show since the very beginning, so this was hands down the most highly anticipated TV movie event for me, and I’m so happy it not only met but exceeded my every expectation. On the day the movie aired, I broke out my Hey Arnold! DVDs and watched “Parents Day” and “The Journal.” The former formally introduced Arnold’s parents, Miles and Stella, and provided the backstory as to what happened to them and why they aren’t around. I remember watching that episode for the first time back when I was a kid and being totally engrossed in the story. The last scene, in particular, had always stuck with me, and enough praise can’t be said about the series’ composer, Jim Lang, whose beautiful piano score at the end of that episode is so fragile yet hopeful, a fitting end to an emotional episode.

“The Journal,” of course, is also a tear-jerker, written and produced at the request of Nickelodeon executives at the time who asked Craig to do a prequel to the then-planned theatrical release of The Jungle Movie. In this final episode of the series, Arnold discovers his father’s journal, and through Miles’ gripping accounts, we learn more about the many life-threatening yet exhilarating adventures he and Stella went on together. We learn about the Green-Eyed People, a mysterious tribe who wind up saving Miles and Stella’s lives. We learn about a sacred relic, the Corazón, which the two of them track down from an evil river pirate, Lasombra, and return to the Green Eyes to show their gratitude. We later learn about the Sleeping Sickness plaguing the Green Eyes and how Stella and Miles worked together to find a cure. We learn about Arnold’s birth and how he silenced all of nature. We learn that when the sickness unexpectedly returns, Arnold’s parents make the difficult and heartbreaking decision to leave their one-year-old son with his grandparents and venture back out to San Lorenzo, and it’s the last anyone had ever heard from them. In the final moments of the episode, Arnold discovers a map in the back of the journal, and he excitedly tells his grandparents, leaving the story at a cliffhanger left hanging all these years until mere days ago when The Jungle Movie made its triumphant premiere.

I was alight with excitement the whole time I was watching Hey Arnold! The Jungle Movie. I had the widest of grins on my face as I found myself enveloped in the story every step of the way. The movie was co-directed by Stu Livingston, who directed the first part, and Raymie Muzquiz, who directed the second, though I personally couldn’t tell where one director stopped and the other took over. The story was so seamless and riveting, and I experienced a whirlwind of emotions culminating in an outpouring of sheer joy.

One thing I appreciated is that, while we did get some fun callbacks to classic running gags (e.g. Helga punching Brainy, the herd of stray animals running in and out of the boarding house, etc.), they weren’t thrown in for the sake of nostalgia alone. Every detail and story beat served a purpose, whether to capture the world or to showcase a character’s strength or weakness or to add to the plot. That’s important for TV but especially in movies, where sometimes additional details can weigh down the plot. This movie knew what it wanted to accomplish from the get-go and successfully set up each of those goals while also re-establishing the characters and their relationships with one another. It trusted its audience, thus removing the need for any clunky exposition and making room for moving storytelling, one of the many reasons the show itself is so beloved.

Before diving into the plot, I have to briefly talk about the new and improved character designs and the crisp, gorgeous animation. All the updated details to the characters’ appearances gave them a fresh look while still being true to the original. As for the animation, something that really struck me was the range of emotion conveyed in the characters’ eyes throughout key parts of the film: Helga’s pupils shrinking in heart-stopping terror when she reaches for her locket only to remember it’s gone, or later, the look of longing she and Arnold share when they’re hanging from the broken rope bridge—a look filled with stark sadness and regret built on all the feelings left unsaid between them in that moment—or, most satisfyingly of all, the outright swelling of Arnold’s eyes when he finally, at long last, reunites with his parents.

Not gonna lie, I cried.

Another thing Craig had promised fans and definitely delivered was that relationships would be tested and the characters would be taken outside their comfort zones. Helga, in particular, is pushed to her emotional limit in this movie. She’s harbored these intense feelings for Arnold for such a long time now, and she tried once to confess those feelings—a dramatic moment in the first Hey Arnold! movie that isn’t overtly re-explained but merely referenced since, again, this movie knows and trusts its audience—so she’s reached a point where she’s beyond fed up. She wants—and, by extension, we the fans want—to know how he feels about her. Sadly, in her impatience and ongoing struggle with her anger, Helga doesn’t exactly pick the opportune time to get answers from Arnold, whose main concern is finding his parents, and rightfully so. He has a hole in his heart, and tragically, he begins to lose hope that he’ll ever be able to find them, let alone if they’re even still alive. As much as the audience feels for Helga, it’s downright heartwrenching to see Arnold lose the blind optimism that makes him who he is. Luckily, Helga’s later able to put her own needs aside by knocking some sense into him and helping him get back on track to put an end to this long-time mystery of where his parents are once and for all.

While that’s the ultimate resolution the movie is heading toward, along the way we get to see the strong ensemble of Hey Arnold! characters have their moments to shine. Grandma Gertie and Grandpa Phil are as badass as ever as they set out on a rescue mission after learning from the family pig, Abner, that Arnold and his classmates are in danger. The once timid Phoebe is far more confident this time around as she takes charge and helps her friends escape. She even gives Gerald a kiss on the cheek in an utterly sweet moment. Speaking of Gerald, he’s a loyal best friend as he always is, standing by Arnold’s quest to find his parents and even forgiving Arnold after he unintentionally led them to danger at the hands of Lasombra, who’d been posing as his parents’ long-time friend, Eduardo.

Eventually, with the guidance of Miles’ hand-drawn map, Arnold, Helga and Gerald discover the hidden city of the Green-Eyed People, who are, notably, all children. They worship Arnold as the Chosen One, and it’s here that we learn where Arnold’s parents have been for the past ten years: They’ve contracted the Sleeping Sickness, and Arnold sees them for the first time in what was, for me, a haunting image. The two of them lie together in a deep sleep without a cure, as the key to waking them up, the golden Corazón, fell down a cliff along with Lasombra.

Leave it to Helga to save the day as she presents her precious golden locket to Arnold in a courageous, touching moment. The real hero, though, is everyone’s favorite heavy-breather, Brainy, who retrieves Helga’s locket in the first place after she threw it in the river in her height of frustration. When he gives it back to her with Arnold’s picture taped back up, the heartwarming moment is made even better when Helga smooches Brainy in gratitude, and he proceeds to break out a pan flute. Too cute, if you ask me.

Still, the symbolism in the scene between Arnold and Helga is incredibly poignant: Helga gives her heart to Arnold, and he accepts it, as it’s the key to filling the hole in his own heart. The Green-Eyed People’s parents begin to wake up, as do Arnold’s parents. He rushes toward them, and when he lays eyes on his parents, the two instantly recognize their son and in unison, they say, dreamily, warmly, “Hey, Arnold.”

Tears. Beautiful, happy tears.

The story is nearly complete, except for one crucial detail: When all is said done, Helga takes back her treasured locket, and she comes face to face with Arnold. This is the moment, the build-up, the confession we’ve all been anxiously awaiting. Arnold is apologetic that he dismissed Helga’s feelings for him in the past, and he confides that he wasn’t ready to hear it back then, but now, things are different. It’s clear that Helga means more to him than she’s ever realized. He sees that her heart is purer than she knows, and he takes her hands and tilts his head up, waiting for her to meet him halfway, and then…

They kiss.

It’s like a fairy-tale ending, perfect in every way. It’s a moment that feels truly earned, not just appeasing the fans. Even afterward, in one of the final scenes of the movie, Arnold and his friends are starting their first day of sixth grade, and Helga still snaps at him when he tries to hold her hand. It’s a reaction that’s true to her character, as she’s still got some growing to do, and she’s not going to change overnight, but that’s okay. Arnold and Helga are soul mates, as Craig himself has stated time and again, and when all is said and done, they’ll live happily ever after, but not without some hurdles along the way.

One other moment that got me was when Arnold wakes up at the end, it briefly seems as though it was all a dream. That bait and switch made my heart stop for a second, but thankfully, it wasn’t a dream, as Arnold’s parents are now living with him in the boarding house. The family has been reunited. Closure. Finally, finally, we have closure. I can’t emphasize enough how much I adored this movie. I felt how much hard work and thought and care went into every last detail. It showed in the storytelling, in the animation, in the voice acting. It managed to capture the spirit of the original series but also stand on its own as an amazing piece of television in children’s entertainment. This was a love letter to the fans first and foremost, and I couldn’t be more appreciative. Again, I say: Thank you, Craig Bartlett and Nickelodeon and all the cast and crew who worked on this film. I enjoyed every moment of this journey.

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