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"Hey Arnold": The Urban Jungle Gym

by on March 27, 2012

Hey Arnold! is one of those “classic” Nickelodeon series that I never watched when it was on the air. It’s from what I dismissed as the network’s “goody-goody” era: when it seemed to take its mandate as a “kid network” seriously and (after the Ren and Stimpy debacle) shied away from genuinely cartoony material, favoring instead the bland attitudes and ugly aesthetics of Rugrats and its ilk. After watching Season Two, Part 1 of Hey Arnold (recently released to DVD) I can’t say I regret missing out on the show–and I doubt I’ll ever watch these episodes again–but I can’t say I disliked the experience either. It is very tame and domesticated, but it has a wry and whimsical quality that is fairly rare in cartoon series.

Hey Arnold is set in an urban neighborhood and centers on the lives of a clutch of fourth-graders. The lead character is the Arnold of the title, whose odd design is lampshaded by having friend and adversary alike remark on the striking resemblance his head has to a football. His best friend is Gerald, an African-American who also stands out because of his late-90’s-style towering hairdo. Other assorted classmates include the dimbulb Stinky, the loyal Sid, the larval bully Harold, and (most notably) the Neanderthal-browed Helga. Arnold lives in a brownstone with his wizened and eccentric grandfather and grandmother, who rent out rooms. They all have mild adventures except when they have slightly wild ones, and morals are learned except when they aren’t. It’s the kind of show that doesn’t have to dial things up to eleven, because seven is high enough when you’re starting at an energy level of two or three.

Most of the 11-minute shorts (packed two-to-an-episode on this ten-episode set) revolve around some small problem that might (in some form) afflict a real group of fourth-graders. In “Mudbowl,” for instance, the fourth-grade kids wind up challenging a bunch of hulking fifth-graders to a football match. In “Ms. Perfect” the girls of Arnold’s class react jealously when a new girl joins the school. In “Eugene’s Pet,” Arnold accidentally kills a classmate’s goldfish and tries to help him find a new pet. Generally they move beyond these tame conceits, sometimes in ways that are eccentric, and sometimes in ways that are boringly unbelievable. In “Eugene’s Pet,” for instance, the luckless Eugene simply cannot find a pet that will not, in some way or another, turn on him, and before it ends (unhappily!) he has been reduced to taming and befriending an imaginary hippopotamus–which is a nicely baroque touch. “Mudbowl,” however, cannot do anything except show that smart fourth-graders can beat dumb fifth-graders: a pleasant lesson but not an unexpected one, and one that is rather too obviously flattering to the main characters. There are a number of such squishy stories on this set, as when the kids have to save a tree (“Save the Tree”) or persecute but are then reconciled to their new, hippy-dippy teacher (“New Teacher”). Some are squishy and unbelievable, like “Harold’s Kitty,” which begins with the local bully finding and falling in love with a stray kitten, and ends with him holding off police cars and choppers in a quasi-kidnapping situation when he refuses to return the kitten to its rightful owner. There are also stories that try to shoehorn pint-sized moral lessons into wild extrapolations of adult-size situations, as in “The Big Scoop,” when Helga learns the importance of truth-in-reporting when she starts up a gossip rag to compete with Arnold’s staid school newspaper.

The series shines most brightly, though, when it passes by “life lesson” stories and turns a sympathetic but slightly cynical eye on kiddie psychology. Usually it’s Helga’s very secret crush on Arnold that gets examined. She is desperately in love with him–and will compose deeply sentimental poetry about him, submitted anonymously to their teacher–but she also ceaselessly and thoughtlessly bullies him when they’re actually together. This antagonism between feelings and actions (obviously a case of acting out in order to get noticed) so vexes Helga in “Helga’s Love Potion” that she seeks an anti-love potion to cure her of her feelings; and without an obsession all the life and joy (and bullying) goes out of her. In “Monkey Business” she comes close to confessing her true feelings when she thinks she’s dying. And even in “Phoebe Cheats” there are throwaway moments where she slinks under her desk in embarrassment when her poetic rhapsodies surface.

There are other stories where characters get some careful and clever exploration. “Phoebe Cheats” puts one character through the wringer–complete with a seemingly haunted trophy–when the title character cheats in a poetry competition. “Longest Monday” is a cute little faux-thriller about the long-dreaded day on which the fifth-graders will stuff the fourth-graders into garbage cans, and does a really good job dramatizing the inane but unreasoning fear the fourth-graders develop as they are picked off one by one in melodramatic fashion.

In its best moments–moments of quiet reflection and quiet obsession–Hey Arnold feels almost like a Peanuts special. This is especially true of “Arnold Saves Sid,” in which one of his friends, convinced that Arnold has saved his life, throws himself into self-demeaning slavery in order to show his gratitude. His behavior is absurd, but not cartoonily so, and Arnold’s discomfort, though genuine, comes as quiet mortification. Its atmosphere, and the way it has the kids discuss their problems in a semi-adult way, is so close to Charles Schultz’s style that one can almost imagine it being recast and remade with the Peanuts crew.

The show’s feeling of genuineness–which vanishes only during a very imaginative Halloween special planted thick with War of the Worlds references–is accented by its use of young voice actors instead of young-acting professionals. Phillip van Dyke and Jamil W. Smith are entirely winning as Arnold and Gerald, respectively. Francesca Marie Smith–though more polished and hence slightly less believable–brings manic energy as Helga. Even the adults shine, particularly David Wohl as the mild-mannered Principal Wartz. (Dan Castellaneta is also on hand as Arnold’s Grandpa, and though he is funny as ever, his character is more “funny old coot” than genuine character.) The show is strikingly ugly, though, from background to foreground, from character design to prop design–busy, cluttered, shapeless, and without character. This is one aspect where it most definitely does not emulate Peanuts, and where it should have. The Schultz-derived cartoons were much better for being spare and evocative, thus letting the personalities come through even more vividly.

Hey Arnold works just fine as low-key entertainment, and there is no audience it will either offend or challenge, and it hasn’t aged badly in the least. It is also a welcome respite from the present moment of smart-aleckry for the sake of smart-aleckry. It would be a nice series to have available on the air, as counter-programming at least. But it’s not the kind of thing that one really needs on a DVD shelf.

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