That Football-Headed Kid
Hey Arnold! The Movie paints an ideal urbanscape, where neighbors are friendly and look after one another. Nickelodeon Movies’ latest offering, based on Nick’s animated tv series, shows that the right mix of individualism and group work can foster positive social change, sneaking in some lessons about historical preservation, as well as tactics (legitimate and less so) useful in achieving said preservation. But Hey Arnold! The Movie is strictly educational. It’s also funny and clever.
Young Arnold (voice of Spencer Klein) is upset that his neighborhood is slated for destruction by business tycoon Scheck (Paul Sorvino), owner of FTI, Future Tech Industries. He’s labeled the old an “infected area,” and vows to replace the longtime residents and small shops with a shiny new shopping mall. Now, anyone who’s ever even heard of urban sociologist Jane Jacobs knows, this is a bad, bad idea, leading ultimately to vacant, unsafe streets at times when the big stores aren’t open, and a lack of community coherence. And without a sense of community, neighborhoods have no pull in the larger political and social arenas. A healthy, productive neighborhood, according to Jacobs, is one in which people live and work, one whose inhabitants include a range of social and economic statuses.
The characters who populate Hey Arnold!‘s neighborhood include Arnold, who lives with his eccentric Grandpa Phil (The Simpsons’ Dan Castellaneta) and Grandma Pookie (Tress MacNeille) in the Sunset Arms rooming house, itself is home to a few odd but kindly characters.
Also living in the neighborhood are Arnold’s best friend, Gerald (Jamil Walker Smith), his cranky nemesis Helga (Francesca Smith), who also nurtures a secret crush on Arnold (she even has a shrine to him in her attic), and Mr. Green, a nostalgic butcher (James Keane), to name a few. They make up an ethnically, generationally diverse community, a harmonious hotbed of multiculturalism that hasn’t been represented since, well, Sesame Street.
Everyone is saddened to learn of the neighborhood’s impending demise, except Helga’s dad Bob Pataki (Maurice LeMarche), who plans on opening Big Bob’s Super Beepers. At first the locals protest, but their voices are faint, especially when compared with the giant television screen erected over the neighborhood: here appears Scheck’s face, with his voice booming Orwellian phrases: “Out with the old, in with the new. I have seen the future, and it is FTI.” One by one, the neighbors give in, selling their properties until only Arnold’s grandfather retains his deed.
Arnold and Gerald decide to take matters into their own hands. They start out with some legal forms of civic action, like holding a “Block-a-palooza” block party to raise local consciousness. But greedy Scheck stymies them by making sure their permit is “lost.” Their next step is to research the neighborhood’s history: it seems that an important historical event occurred on Arnold’s block during the Revolutionary War. It’s up to Arnold to find the documentation to prove to the Mayor that his neighborhood is “historic” and so can’t be torn down. At first, he and Gerald toe the socially condoned line, going to a government research office. When this fails, they take a more “by any means necessary” approach.
With the help of other citizens, and some clues from an anonymous source called “Deep Voice,” Arnold and Gerald race to save the block. They meet some quirky characters along the way: a mysterious urban guerilla named Bridget (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who supplies them with walkie-talkies and other gadgets for their mission; Murray, a world-weary bus driver lamenting his lost love; and a nutty coroner (Christopher Lloyd) who sleeps in the morgue wearing a toe-tag. These odd folks help Arnold and Gerald’s mission—strangers coming out of the woodwork when assistance is needed. This is The City, so often viewed as anonymous and unfriendly, especially in children’s programming, at its best.
Hey Arnold! The Movie is also cartooning at its most creative. Not animation at its flashiest or most lifelike, but with a sly use of details—an eyebrow raised here, a hand motion there—that makes simple line drawings come alive. As in the television series, the good characters are drawn to be adorable, while the bad ones are sharp-angled and seedy. Arnold and Gerald make a charming odd couple, with Arnold’s football-shaped head (he is often called “that football-headed kid), and Gerald’s hair height rivaling Marge Simpson’s. Scheck, on the other hand, is low-browed and shifty-eyed; his stooge Nick Vermicelli (Castellaneta again) is slouchy, scrawny, and looks just plain dirty.
The animators’ careful attention to background imagery and throwaway details—Nick drools while he sleeps, and a calendar advertising a bail bonds business hangs on his wall, for example—helps to make the film interesting for adults as well as kids. It is too bad that there aren’t other, similarly conscientious projects during the long, hot summer months—bringing people out of their houses, into the theaters, and maybe even talking with one another about what’s going on in the neighborhood.