How the Hey Arnold! movie was rescued by fans and Twitter

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Nov 22, 2017

If you came of age in the 1990s, then you probably have fond memories of sitting too close to your non-flat-screen television watching old-school Nickelodeon cartoons. The original lineup (including Doug and Rugrats) and its bumpers have become iconic, but one piece of programming had a particularly strong following. So strong, in fact, that its fans helped revive the series once they became adults.

Created by Craig Bartlett, Hey Arnold! ran from 1996 to 2004, telling the story of a football-headed youth living with his grandparents in their inner-city boarding house, Sunset Arms. Across five seasons, Arnold interacts with a plethora of colorful characters, helping them solve problems in the fictional northern city of Hillwood, although it was originally unnamed. The show's urban setting is a pastiche of several American cities that are either architecturally distinct or close to Bartlett's heart like Seattle (his hometown), Portland (where he attended art school), Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Chicago. 

November 2002 saw the release "The Journal," a two-part episode that promised to answer a lot of mysteries within the Hey Arnold! universe. "The Journal" revolved around Arnold finding a journal written by his father documenting his parents' adventures in the Central American country of San Lorenzo as they helped cure the native Green-Eyed people of a strange sleeping disease. Also included are his parents' wedding, the birth of Arnold himself, and his parents being called back to aid the Green Eyes when he was a toddler and never returning.

The episodes were meant to be a prologue of sorts to a feature-length film, The Jungle Movie, that would have Arnold and his friends traveling to San Lorenzo and unraveling the mystery, but the movie was scrapped. Some credit this to the poor reception of the first Hey Arnold! movie, while others cite a contractual disagreement between Bartlett and the network. What is more, the series ended with an episode that had no connection with "The Journal," in the summer of 2004.

Nothing more was said about making The Jungle Movie in an official capacity, and the film (and the closure it promised for fans) languished in the ether. Online forums pondered endlessly on what the film might have looked like and the plot it contained, but that's as far as the affair went until about two years ago, when the news broke that Nick was finally moving forward with the project.

SYFY WIRE got in touch with the show's creator, Craig Bartlett, as well as the voices of Helga (Francesca Marie Smith) and Phoebe Heyerdahl (Anndi McAfee), who gave us some well-needed answers, nearly two decades in the making.

Initial development

"The Jungle Movie was meant to explain the backstory of Arnold's missing parents and this big hole in Arnold's heart where he's not gonna be quite complete until he solves the mystery," Bartlett said. "And now, when everything got canceled, that was quite a disappointment for us. The actors and I stayed in touch, and the artists and I stayed in touch, but basically we all went on with our lives for a decade."

Fandoms have power

Believe it or not, it was the people who watched the show as kids who saved the show from utter extinction, thanks to the advent of social media.

"The groundswell of interest in Arnold from the kids who grew up and became professionals, you know, writing and being artists and being animators and talking to each other on social media, it just was like, over the last few years, it just built to the point where it was time to consider a reboot, and I told the execs at Nick that I would love to reboot Hey Arnold!," said Craig. "And the thing we absolutely had to do first was make The Jungle Movie. So I actually put together a kind of a PowerPoint presentation, I called it 'Arnold 101,' where I showed them what all the features of those hundred half-hours of Hey Arnold! [episodes], what the main storylines were and how it all was leading to The Jungle Movie. And they said, 'Okay,' and so here we are about three years later and we finally finished it."

"We were aware that there was this growing social media fandom out there and we were very honored by that," added McAfee.

So if ever your child says they want to grow up not to be a fireman or astronaut, but someone who saves TV shows, encourage the hell outta them!

Getting the gang back together

The Jungle Movie not only brings back all of their favorite characters, it reunites a ton of the show's original cast and crew, including Dan Castellaneta (Grandpa Phil), Tress MacNeille (Pookie, aka Arnold's grandmother), and Maurice LaMarche (Bob "The Beeper King" Pataki).

"I was kind of the first to actually believe it, and I told the actors about it and they were shocked," Bartlett continued. "I think that they slowly came to believe it as well. The supervising producer and director of the movie is Raymie Muzquiz, who was going to direct it in the first place in, I think, 2001, he came on and we developed it for a year or so. And I remember Raymie's complete disbelief, and we were sitting around in meetings interviewing people that we were gonna hire for the crew, and he was just shaking his head going, 'I guess we're actually makin' this.' So that's been really fun, watching everyone's stunned disbelief become slowly a reality. ... There'll be a certain amount of nostalgia about it [for fans]."

Courtesy of Nickelodeon

Getting back into the Arnold groove

Perhaps the most well-known character after Arnold himself is Helga Pataki, the unibrowed bully who harbors a deep love for the eponymous football head. Surprisingly, Helga was such a big part of Smith that it wasn't super hard to voice her after all this time. There was just one scary moment when Nickelodeon asked her to audition for the role again just to make sure she sounded like the character.

"For me, it was surprisingly comfortable [getting back into the role]," she told SYFY WIRE. "I grew up with the character so much, she was so integrated into my sense of self from the time I was 9 until I was about 16, that I had kind of forgotten what it felt like to be able to sort of flip back into a role that felt so much like me. [It was] so rewarding to have the snappy dialogue and the humor and the emotional range and everything provided for me by Craig and the writing team, both the original writing team and the newcomers, who really, I think, managed to capture that spirit and that magic nicely."

For McAfee, who plays Helga's best friend, Phoebe, the experience was a bit more challenging. "To get back into Phoebe after only doing her voice, like, for fun two times in all of those years was [pretends to cough]. Getting those muscles working again, but once you go back there, like Francesca was saying, it's such a part of who you are that it's almost like being home again. You have to find those muscles, and then they're just part of you again," she said.

And even though they admit they sounded so much younger while doing the original series, Craig isn't worried in the slightest.

"That's what's kind of cool. Everybody grew up on this show, and so their evolution was happening anyway," he said. "Everybody was growing up, and so I think it's a natural evolution that everybody will accept completely. I think Helga and Phoebe sound exactly like Helga and Phoebe when you watch The Jungle Movie."

A lasting legacy

Only fans with an unwavering love of the show could have revived it like this, and Craig described this as "deep ties."

"I love the fact that this phenomenon of around 2012, where Netflix put up the whole series and people binge-watched," he said. "I'd go talk at a college or something and the student would come up to me and say, 'I just want you to know I binge-watched the whole hundred half-hours three times in a row,' and I'd go, 'Good, maybe you can stump me. Maybe you'll know some stuff that even I can't remember.'"

Courtesy of Nickelodeon 

Here come the waterworks

Even the main man behind the show, who knew what was coming before anyone else did, gets bleary-eyed while watching his creation. He promises the The Jungle Movie will have more of the same, and if not, he'll reimburse you (somewhat).

"It's really interesting to watch the really emotional episodes like 'Helga on the Couch,' 'The Journal,' 'Parents Day,' the Christmas special ['Arnold's Christmas'], because I can't watch them without getting choked up, and I'm sort of annoyed by when I watch it now, like, 'Why was I making such an emotional show?!'" Barlett said. "And I'm sitting their kind of [makes defeated noise], all kind go wrung out, wiping away tears. God, in 'The Journal,' when Arnold is born. When is the last time you guys watched that? It tears you up! All I can say is The Jungle Movie's gonna do that in spades, because, I think, our powers of TV-making are even better now, and I feel like we have the advantage of all the interest and the fan love for the show. And if The Jungle Movie doesn't make you cry, well, I'll send you a dollar."

Courtesy of Nickelodeon

Where do we go from here?

Bartlett said that The Jungle Movie need not be the end for Arnold. If all goes well, there could be more of him in the future.

"Nickelodeon has been telling me all along, like 'Hey, don't forget.' It's great that there's a generation of super fans who are adults, but don't forget the network is for kids 6 to 11 and needs to serve them as well," said the creator. "So we really did try to make the movie—introduce everybody properly, set up all the relationships that the series has been about, and be entertaining to kids as well. And if it works and it gets the good numbers and kids watch it as well, then there really is a possibility of doing what we call 'Season 6.' And I really tried to write it that way, too, so that the door's open at the end of the movie for them enter sixth grade and have a whole new bunch of adventures, so that would be great for all of us. We would love it if that was the result and we did it with our eyes wide open, trying to make that happen."

Let's be honest, this is one of those movies (like the upcoming Incredibles 2) that is for the adults who grew up with this property, plain and simple.

"I'd love the opportunity to go back to the way that we told stories as a series," added McAfee. "We wanted it for so long that waiting the 15 years, or whatever it's been, makes it that much sweeter. So I'm trying to relish that right now."

Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie swings onto a television near you on November 24. To whet your appetite, enjoy this new clip from the film: