“Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie” Interview with Craig Bartlett, Anndi McAfee, and Francesca Marie Smith
In preparation for Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie, Nickelodeon Studios invited Toonzone News to sit down with co-writer, executive producer and TV series original creator Craig Bartlett, as well as original cast members Francesca Marie Smith (Helga) and Anndi McAfee (Phoebe), who reprise their roles in the movie.
TOONZONE NEWS: Is coming back to Hey Arnold! different because of how much the animation landscape has changed or is it like slipping on a pair of old shoes?
CRAIG BARLETT: I actually said it’s like putting on a pair of old shoes.
ANNDI MCAFEE: But the comfortable ones, not the smelly ones.
CRAIG BARLETT: Comfortable old shoes and going on a journey together and what a comfort to have along old friends. And it’s been a really cool combination of old friends and new people that give the project a lot of vitality. There’s a whole bunch of next generation artists and actors and writers who have all worked on this project together, so it’s been a really great new experience as well.
ANNDI MCAFEE: I feel like its yes and no for me. I feel like it’s definitely like putting on a familiar pair of slippers with respect to being there with some of the original cast and production crew and Craig, who is like both cast and crew. On the other hand, we’re in an era where we’re kind of self-aware. We get feedback now, and there’s technology, so there’s one aspect where it feels so good to just be back doing what we do and in the natural way that we always have, and yet there’s this other aspect where there’s not pressure, but there’s this awareness that it’s so important to give that experience back. Not only to the generation that grew up with the show but the current generation as well, the kids now.
FRANCESCA MARIE SMITH: Yeah in a way it’s almost like an homage as much as it is a continuation. You can’t help but be self-aware, like you said, not just to have immediate feedback but having this ten or fifteen years to think about it and to get input from fans about what it means. Yes, absolutely, I think that in a lot of ways, we’re going into the booth and doing the same performance that we have, but there is, exactly like Anndi said, this sense of perspective that certainly as a ten-year-old, I never had.
ANNDI MCAFEE: When we’re recording I just wanted the adults to be impressed with my character, and now I want the fans to love my character. That’s the difference.
CRAIG BARLETT: Yeah, the feedback is instant. The moment we finish another one of these cons or something like that, you can see how it’s playing. I love the instantaneous of it. I watched so carefully—I felt more confident this year. The summer before, we went to San Diego and we showed our first designs, and in the next hour, it was released online. All the same assets that we showed at the panel, and the fans responded really positively to our new designs. And I was like, “Phew, what a load off.” I was so worried that they would see any changes and hate them and so based on that, I felt more confident this year to show the clip, the three minute clip in San Diego, and then in New York, we dropped our first trailer. And I just knew they were into this, they were behind us, they’re going to like this.
ANNDI MCAFEE: It does feel like an old pair of slippers to the kids that grew up with it.
CRAIG BARLETT: I want people to feel, “Oh I know this world, I know these characters.” They’re essentially the same, even if they’re being voiced maybe by a new actor, it’s going to be okay.
TOONZONE NEWS: Hey Arnold is an interesting example of a show that ended without resolving its plots and came back several years later. Were you bombarded with questions about it since then?
CRAIG BARLETT: It’s been fifteen years since we made our last episode.
TOONZONE NEWS: Were you tempted to say what you had planned or did you not want to say anything in case you came back?
CRAIG BARLETT: I always go on too long and blab too much. I give away too much information, and part of it is this sort of built-in reflex on my part of self-promotion just to keep working. I’ve always been that kind of person who’s got five pitches and maybe one of these will go. I think the nature of this work is where you’ve got a bunch of stuff on the burner and one of them finally is going to pay off and so you feel that work is never ending. And when social media came, I immediately started posting Arnold stuff because that’s clearly what people liked the best, and I thought maybe I can curate this into something. Sure enough, look at this, here we are. That only convinced me that I was on the right track, so I’ve just always tried to make it go and it happened. I think your question was different. I think I veered off. What was your question again?
TOONZONE NEWS: Did you have an original ending back then and did it change since?
CRAIG BARLETT: It did change. We were always trying to develop the series toward the Jungle Movie because the biggest question of the series was what happened to his parents? Where are they? What’s mystery of his parents? And we’ve been developing it for a while, 2001, 2001, 2002 and the first movie came out and the series was cancelled after that, and we left it in this giant cliffhanger with the journal where he’s found his dad’s map in his dad’s journal. So I knew that was a story I had to tell, and so we were developing that movie back then, but when we got this opportunity fifteen years later, I actually had a whole other go at it based on the fact that I had been living with this series and seeing the fans’ reaction to it all these years and so it was much more of an interaction now between us and our audience. We’re much more aware of our audience and what they want than we were back then, so it reflects those wishes.
TOONZONE NEWS: In terms of interacting with your audience, did you find there were a lot of fans of Helga?
CRAIG BARLETT: Oh yeah!
TOONZONE NEWS: It’s almost like Helga was the protagonist at times.
CRAIG BARLETT: Yeah, I mean, people would say, some people are of the opinion that it’s really a series about Helga, but it’s just that Helga was a really effective character. I remember pitching Arnold in the first place and they said “What’s the deal with Arnold? Is he active? Does he do all these things?” I said well yeah, but he’s a chill kid and he’s kind of a quiet, strange kid. He’s kind of a calm center around which all the other characters are really nuts and doing all the funny stuff. It’ll be great, I promise, and they’re like “I don’t know, you’re calling it Hey Arnold!, Arnold needs to be more…something.” I said, “Don’t worry, there’s Helga.” Claims to hate him and is obsessed with him and turns out she loves him and then in her little monologues she’ll tell the audience how awesome he is, and it’ll work. And you could tell they were like “That’s weird,” but look at it now. Sure enough, they love Helga. They love the back story that Helga has. The episode “Helga on the Couch,” we find out her whole history of being the neglected, forgotten kid, and so they love her. And she’s creative and funny and she’s an artist and a poet. And so she does all these things that are kind of all about Arnold, and so, that’s how the series works. Helga tells us how great he is, and then he’s the hero of the show. So it did work, it paid off and the audience tells us so and now we have fifteen years of the audience and social media telling us how much they like that.
FRANCESCA MARIE SMITH: And some incredible stories, too, of how many people said “I was Helga, this was my story, I felt that I could relate to her and that she resonated with me” in ways that, at the time, I certainly didn’t know or even really expect.
CRAIG BARLETT: I was at the Ottawa Festival doing some kind of keynote and at the end of the questions, somebody raised her hand and said that she, as a kid, felt suicidal and she saw “Helga on the Couch” and it gave her the courage to go get a therapist and that was her process. Testimonials like that make you go, “Man, TV is powerful”. It really has an effect on people. We should make good TV. We should be responsible TV makers because it really is effective and powerful.
TOONZONE NEWS: Was it difficult getting into the character with her monologues and changes in tone?
FRANCESCA MARIE SMITH: I don’t know that it was difficult in the moment. I had such wonderful fuel to work with. The scripts, the dialogue, the language…I didn’t even see it as a challenge, it was just a meaty thing to jump into, but coming back and doing it more recently, I realized how exhausted I get. (laughs) Even just coming in and doing a few lines is like, “Oh, right, this is an emotional marathon.” Triathlon. So yeah, I don’t know that it ever really felt hard in a bad way, difficult, but there is absolutely so much packed into her. There’s so many different extremes that she goes to, and that’s why I think that’s part of why she resonates with people.
TOONZONE NEWS: What about with Phoebe and her intellectual speeches, was that difficult at all?
ANNDI MCAFEE: No, it was fun. I got to live out that side of my personality through her. Phoebe is a perfectionist, and part of that is in her language that she chooses to use. She likes to frame everything slightly more adult than all the other kids in her grade, which is probably why she really attaches to Helga. They’re both really smart young girls but in different ways. And my favorite part is when Phoebe goes from that extreme of being super smart Miss In Control of the Language to wild and crazy and nuts. When she gets to do things like with the wrecking ball in “Career Day” she gets to knock down a building, she’s like “Ahahaha!” It’s invigorating or something.
CRAIG BARLETT: The Grand Prix.
ANNDI MCAFEE: She drives that car like a maniac.
CRAIG BARLETT: The go-cart race and when she revealed her ninja skills in the caves of “Wheezin’ Ed”.
ANNDI MCAFEE: I love those times where she gets like all I’m going just tell you what it’s all about in language that you’re just going to have to look up as we go. I love those.
CRAIG BARLETT: She does all that stuff in the movie.
TOONZONE NEWS: Do you have a favorite moment?
ANNDI MCAFEE: I don’t have a favorite moment, but hands down, my favorite Phoebe moments, are when she and Helga have some sort of falling out and these two really intelligent, passionate little girls, who are just figuring out what school’s all about, what life’s all about, they hurt each other in some way. Well, mostly Helga hurts Phoebe in some way, but Helga gets to express all that passion but in a completely different way with Phoebe, and she acknowledges what she did and they have this moment. When something else happens to Phoebe like in “6th Grade Girls” where they’re totally horrible to her, and Helga is like, “Wait, was it me, was it somebody else that was horrible to you? No, not allowed.” And they have that moment where Helga’s like, “You’re smart, you’re wonderful, you’re the best friend, and we’re going to go get those girls.” Those are my favorite moments.
TOONZONE NEWS: What do you want audiences to get out of your characters in The Jungle Movie?
FRANCESCA MARIE SMITH: I think one of the things that I personally like about The Jungle Movie is the opportunity for Helga to really think long and hard about what Arnold means to her. And part of that is her trying to get some resolution in their relationship, but also it’s a personal question. What am I willing to do? Who am I on my own? I didn’t phrase that right, but more what her part of the equation is. What she is willing to do to help Arnold to put his needs above her own. All of those types of questions, I think, have been a really interesting way of reflecting on what they’re relationship and, more broadly, the series dynamics, were like. What makes Helga Helga, what makes Arnold special to Helga. I didn’t really have that perspective when we were creating the show originally, so to be able to do that now and not just with Helga, with everyone. To think about what makes these characters special. What about their stories has continued on.
CRAIG BARLETT: It’s really true because we know now how much it means to so many people, and we don’t want to let anybody down. We wanted to make as solid a story as we possibly could. Even though it checks all the boxes and takes care and answers your questions, we wanted it to be a true story. A story that came from within. Helga’s motivation, Phoebe’s motivation, all these characters are in these extraordinary circumstances, and they’ve got to deliver. It’s based on friendships, and the truth of that is what we’re trying to get at.
FRANCESCA MARIE SMITH: I guess the more concise version is to appreciate what was so special about the original show and celebrate that while also appreciating what is new about the circumstances, about everything.
ANNDI MCAFEE: I want the audience to go on an emotional roller-coaster and much like the original series, I want them to not even really understand what just happened and to have to re-watch it a bunch of times.
CRAIG BARLETT: Yeah, I really do hope they watch it two or three times.
ANNDI MCAFEE: Because that’s what the series was for me. I didn’t understand half the stuff that went on in the series at the time, I just knew I had some sort of reaction to it. Whether it was hilarious or really sad, I didn’t quite understand why, and I had to go back and watch it a few times before I caught all of the things that were going on. So that’s what I hope the audience gets out of the movie.
Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie premieres Friday November 24th at 7pm (ET/PT)