I liked fanfiction more than Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie

Posted by brilokuloj on Sep 17, 2020

I really, really, really wanted to like Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie. I don’t know if I can paint a good word-picture for you of just how badly I wanted this movie. Did you know I waited for this movie for 10 years? It’s true. If that sounds crazy, a lot of people were waiting for even longer than I did! But yes, I waited 10 years for this movie.

So why didn’t I like Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie? It was witty and cute, and for the general public it was everything it promised to be. It hit all the notes at a brisk pace and left no questions. All things considered, it perfectly tied the loose ends on a show that many thought was never even going to get an ending. I should have been happy.

But I wasn’t happy. This film promised a deep, long-lasting catharsis that it did not bring. And how could it, anyway? A decade is a long time, and it’s an especially long time to wait for the resolution of an elementary school soap opera. I was a kid when I wanted to see this show end, and I’m an adult now. My wants and wishes have changed a lot, and unfortunately, so has Nickelodeon’s.

So this is my Jungle Movie story. This is my own little slice of what the internet was like for one specific fandom back in the mid-2000s, when YouTube was a site you could watch things on, when the idea of signing internet petitions was celebratory instead of Sisyphean. This is a tale that extends well into my struggles with alcoholism, a topic sadly inevitable when it comes to talking about what was effectively a trauma comfort show for me. And above anything else, I think this is a surprisingly long epic of television executives failing to understand their accidental periphery demographic of little girls, and maybe I should be glad they didn’t blatantly target girls for marketing but dammit I still just wanted my kiddy wish fulfillment movie.


Uh, so what is Hey Arnold! anyway?

If you want a straightforward answer, you can read the Wikipedia page. But the surface-level explanation never seems to show my friends why it was my favorite cartoon, so I’m going to go ahead and explain it the way I saw the show growing up.

Arnold and Helga

Hey Arnold! is a slice-of-life comedy-drama cartoon about Helga Pataki, a 9-year-old girl with a crush with her friend Arnold, who she is relentlessly mean to as a front. Helga has received no affection in her life from anyone other than Arnold, and she doesn’t know how to return it. Her family life is broken, with her often stuck being emotional caretaker to both of her parents, who have no love left for each other but refuse to divorce. She views herself as uniquely broken and evil, and since she’s already not very ‘pretty’, Helga has already internalized herself as ‘one of the boys’ and locked herself behind emotional walls.

The titular Arnold is very kind, but emotionally denser than a brick. He barely even notices that they’re friends, even though he regularly makes up excuses to hang out with her and be affectionate to her. Arnold is an orphan and can relate to Helga’s lack of parental support, and the both of them have a uniquely sarcastic and dire view on life compared to their peers. They’re both very weirdly ‘grown up’, which I saw as just age-ambiguous writing (and it still kind of is), but I later came to understand this forced maturity is pretty typical for kids with complex PTSD, which both of them are realistically portrayed as having.

At its core, Hey Arnold! is about children with a myriad of traumas. Arnold’s best friend Gerald is bullied by his own brother, and tends to overcompensate by being obsessed with his ‘cool’ self-image; Helga’s best friend Phoebe is very heavily implied to be an overachiever because of her parents, and seems to have some brewing rage issues for it. Many classmates are used in the narrative for discussion of poverty, depression, addiction, and compulsions.

Hey Arnold! was a good cartoon, and it had a respectable run with 5 seasons and 2 movies. Today we are talking about those two cleverly-titled films: Hey Arnold!: The Movie and Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie.

The Movie

You’ll see a lot of people say that Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie, released in 2017, was a 13-year production. This would imply that production started in 2004, but that’s actually just the amount of time between the last episode of the show and the film. That’s not even how long the public was waiting, because the series finale leading up to the movie actually aired out of order in 2002.

Conceptualization of The Jungle Movie began in 1998. When Hey Arnold! was renewed for its fourth season, Nickelodeon went ahead and asked showrunner Craig Bartlett if he could make two movies too - they were already doing a trial run with a Rugrats movie, so why not just get their ducks in a row? One was going to be a TV special, and the other would be a full theatrical release. This is the exact formula they used for Rugrats too, so I guess they were feeling really confident about that.

A promotional ad for the Hey Arnold movie

The made-for-TV film, Arnold Saves the Neighborhood, was corny from the very start. The plot revolved around Arnold’s neighborhood nearly being replaced with a mall, and his ensuing adventure to save it. That’s pretty high-stakes stuff for a show that’s entirely focused on a single group of people, but a lot of the beats are a rehash of the even smaller episode “Save the Tree”, which was the same basic formula but about a treehouse everyone really liked.

I don’t think it needed to be anything groundbreaking, though, and I don’t think that was what they were aiming for either. The Neighborhood was going to be a glorified TV special composed of the last 3 episodes of the show, but The Jungle Movie was going to be the actual series finale. The Neighborhood asked no questions and gave no answers. It was pure fluff.

Plans changed quickly. The Rugrats Movie (1998) was an unprecedented hit, and at the time became the highest-grossing animated film that wasn’t by Disney. Rugrats in Paris (2000) hit similar numbers, and I think that’s why a year into the development of The Neighborhood they decided to turn it into a theatrical release.

The crew only had a few months to do this, and barely any more budget to do it with. The movie was already mostly done! There’s so many logistic issues here. Cartoons and movies are made for completely different sizes of screens. Just “making the screen wider” is basically meaningless when so much work goes into screen-specific composition. It was going to look worse than if they had just aired it on TV in the first place, and they knew it.

The movie was clearly for-TV; the marketing felt grandiosely disconnected from the contents of the film; moviegoers felt lied to. It was doomed from the start. That’s the backstory of Hey Arnold!: The Movie, a production so badly handled that it became Nickelodeon Movies’ lowest-grossing animated film.

More promotional material

So … the story should be clear here, right? Nickelodeon put out a subpar product and people were mad.

No, somehow Nickelodeon came to the incredible leap that it must have been the fault of Hey Arnold! specifically, a show that was already underperforming because they had been slowly trying to replace it with Rugrats. They drove it into its own grave and didn’t even have the decency to bury it.

The Jungle Movie never got the greenlight, but they went ahead and aired the series finale anyway, ending the show on a cliffhanger.

But cartoons end on cliffhangers all the time, right?

Cliffhanging

Hey Arnold! left on two major unanswered questions: what happened to Arnold’s parents, and will Arnold ever reciprocate Helga’s feelings? (The Movie had a confession scene from Helga, but they seemed to mutually agree to disregard it for the time being.)

The final two-part episode, “The Journal”, actually gave us a lot of information about Arnold’s parents. They were doctors working in Central America, they did love their son very much, and they didn’t actually mean to abandon him. They may have gotten sick from a local disease, or they may have been killed. The episode did not answer if they were alive or not, and it did not answer anything about Arnold and Helga. It was merely a setup for the penultimate reveal: Arnold’s parents left behind a map of their route during their last trip, and now Arnold could follow them.

The Jungle Movie was supposed to answer all of these questions. As the years went by and it became more and more clear no networks wanted to pick up a second film for an already ‘finished’ cartoon, series runner Craig Bartlett started giving details at fandom chats and interviews: the movie would be about Arnold’s school mysteriously and quite conveniently taking a class trip to Central America, where Arnold would inevitably wander away from his classmates and follow the map. The stakes would be high, there would be a lot of action, and in a moment of vulnerability Arnold would finally actually confront his feelings for Helga.

Sometimes I think that if these details were never leaked, Hey Arnold! might have just silently fizzled out. But these details got people curious. Bit by bit, Craig revealed basically every detail about the movie in a trail of breadcrumbs that people followed for over a decade. Every now and then we’d get a new piece of concept art that would revive interest. There was fanfiction, fanart, desperate petitions. Maybe in time we would have let go on our own, but Craig was clearly and rightfully still bitter, and that led to a fandom based entirely on a shared resentment of television executives.

Promotional art for The Jungle Movie

This fandom, self-propelled by frustration and disappointment, propagated themselves wherever they could online. It’s easy to say this kind of tactic doesn’t work, but it was only through their insistent campaigning that I got into Hey Arnold! in 2006. The fandom’s edits to TV Tropes led me to the notoriously weird episode “Helga’s Parrot”, which I then watched on YouTube thanks to the work of a dedicated Nickelodeon cartoon uploader.

It isn’t a great episode and I wouldn’t particularly recommend it for anything other than its memetic quality, but something about it immediately dragged me in. I had watched Hey Arnold! plenty when I was much younger, but I never really got it - I just thought of it as a weird, funny, slightly dour show. “Helga’s Parrot” was all of those adjectives, but also oddly insightful as to an ongoing story I was not yet privy to. Turns out Hey Arnold! is the sort of cartoon that necessitates DVR binges, a luxury I did not have at its peak in 2000.

YouTube was the perfect environment to fall into that hole. This was long before you could just find recommended watch guides on Reddit, so I read episode summaries off of A Hey Arnold! Character & Episode Guide and watched ones that looked plot-advancing. Then I watched episodes that just happened to feature Helga and Arnold interacting. Then I watched standalone Helga episodes. Then I started realizing, hey, the side characters had funny sideplots too. Then I watched the movie and “The Journal” and hey wait, that’s it? What a momentum killer!

I was not happy. I wanted more content. I turned to reading fanfiction, and I found so many other people in the exact boat I was in. Except these people had been floating adrift for years, and I quickly learned why they were entertaining themselves by adding random information to TV Tropes. What can you even do at that point except write fanfiction and beg complete strangers to care?

My first serious published work of fiction was a post-The Movie fanfic about … drumroll … if Arnold would ever reciprocate Helga’s feelings. Bet you can’t guess the answer! There were hundreds of fics exactly like mine, but that’s what made it weirdly cathartic, and I have a good feeling I might know why so many other people writing these stories were young girls. Hey Arnold! was rare and treasured for celebrating the kind of deeply flawed and fucked up woman that American society spends all of its free time throwing rocks at.

I’m sure those kids were just as happy as I am that Helga was a writer. If this show took place in the 00s she would unquestionably be writing fic.

Helga smoking a cigarette while writing on a laptop

Yes, this is official art.

I continued to write fanfiction, until I ran out of ideas and realized I was a bad writer. I continued to read fanfiction for years. I talked to my friends about it until they did not want to talk to me about this topic anymore. Arnold lived in my head rent-free in his cool little attic room.

In November 2008 I found most of the series hosted as WMV files on a fansite, and I slowly downloaded them one episode at a time (my ISP throttled me if I downloaded multiple at once) - all my favorites, but most notably “Arnold’s Thanksgiving”, an incredibly melancholy episode about Arnold and Helga finally bonding over their broken homes. I watched it alone the night before Thanksgiving, a quiet treat all for myself. I might have cried.

Watching Arnold's Thanksgiving in Windows Media Player

I rewatched the rest of my favorites well into December, at which point I realized that was it. I think I was hoping rewatching it would make it feel different, or I’d see things I hadn’t before. No, I was now a teenager, and Hey Arnold! was the same show it had always been, and The Jungle Movie was not going to happen - the fandom had been waiting since 2002, after all.

I dropped off in 2009. It had been 3 years and my friends were begging me to get other interests. My personal involvement in this story trails off here, which is a damn shame, because if I had just stuck around for another 2 more years … 

Are we there yet?

In 2011, Nickelodeon started a night block for throwback content, including Hey Arnold!. This brought a brand new wave of curious fans, renewed hope, and probably more goddamn fanfic. I wish I could tell you what the fandom was like at this point, but everything I’ve seen suggests it was basically just fresh faces saying the same things. I was one of the ‘new ones’ even in 2006, so I imagine every resurgence brought more of the same.

With his foot back in the door, Craig came back to Nickelodeon in 2012. In 2014 he tried to pitch the movie again, and something must have gone right this time around, because in 2016 we finally got our first official Nickelodeon-approved concept art: a couple model sheets for the main characters, featuring some minor redesigns.

The Hey Arnold cast, redesigned

I don’t remember thinking anything about this news beyond “huh, neat”, which I feel weird about in retrospect, but at this point in my life The Jungle Movie felt like the furthest thing from my mind. I had been waiting a decade, and a decade is a long time, especially as I crossed from my preteen years into adulthood. It’s still surprising that I couldn’t muster up even a bit of excitement for my favorite cartoon finally getting its finale, but hey, depression is a bitch and 2016 was the worst year of my life. Knowing that time period, I was probably drunk when I got the news. Anyway.

The redesigns were fine. I’ve gone on extensively elsewhere about Arnold’s character design evolution and I’ll spare you that whole rant but Jungle Movie Arnold is obviously the logical conclusion of that ordeal, his head looks like a cheap wonton and that’s OK. Helga and Phoebe are fine. The only change that really bugged me was Gerald and I still feel like they homogenized his facial features - I won’t call it whitewashing but it still kinda stinks that they boiled down his distinct character design into something kind of cookie-cutter. I dunno.

I guess that sums up how I felt: it just looked okay. That neutrality was equal parts ‘depression from external factors’ and ‘exhaustion from the wait’. I wondered what they could have done to make the reveal more exciting - maybe more focus on character interaction? Is there anything that could have been ‘big enough’ after over 10 years of silence? I’m willing to admit I was being mean, but I’m also trying to talk honestly about how it felt.

The Jungle Movie finally came out in November 2017. The weird thing is, I don’t remember anyone in my life saying anything when it came out, and I know that’s not by virtue of the company I keep, because when Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling came out in 2019 my social media feed did not shut up for weeks. I’m not gonna even start on that Invader Zim movie. So you’d think I would have seen something, even just a peep. You’d think … you’d think.

I didn’t learn that The Jungle Movie was out until 2019, when a family member gifted me a pair of Hey Arnold!-themed socks. The unspoken joke was “remember when you wouldn’t shut up about this show?” and it led me to reminisce, a hole I fell into for months until I finally sucked it up and rewatched my favorite episodes. At which point: “Oh shit it’s finally out! It’s been out! Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

Paula (my very patient wife, who has very patiently put up with my many Arnold conversations) kindly told me it wouldn’t be worth watching, because I wasn’t that excited when the previews first came out, and there was no way this would be everything I wanted it to be after a decade. They were right and I agreed with them.

A couple weeks later I decided I had to watch it.

Hey, did you know this article would come with a recipe? Here’s “Jungle Juice”, the neon green hangover abomination I had to drink in order to get the emotional fortitude to watch this goddamn movie:

I’ve been sober since the start of 2020 and I hope it stays that way.

Welcome to the tungle

Opening scene, described below

The film opens with the first note of Parents Day, the theme song of Arnold’s relationship with his family. That’s a wonderful easter egg, but it’s also a perfect moment to ask ourselves who this movie is intended for - I went into this not having watched those episodes since 2009, and it flew right over my head. Maybe that’s my problem?

But then we finally learn Arnold’s last name (it’s Shortman). We meet some throwback characters. And more throwback characters. And more references. Helga at one point descends into her lair of homemade Arnold VHS tapes, a hobby she has never had before, a detail that crosses her behavior from creepy often-coincidental antics into outright harassment, all so that they can have her literally show the audience scenes from previous episodes. Thanks, I guess?

Helga's creepy basement

Who is this movie for? You can’t really throw in that many explanations without alienating your most dedicated fanbase. There was a point where it crossed over into making me feel like I was being whacked with a rolled-up newspaper. But wow, look, it’s Monkeyman!

Arnold and Gerald

I kept finding myself distracted by the visuals. I’m the sort of person who loves digital animation and truly believes it’s the future, so I hope you won’t take me as a traditionalist snob when I say this: I think the corners they cut in this film strip the show of all of its charm.

Background art from the show

Hey Arnold! was a noteworthy cartoon, at least in retrospect, for its ability to make a lot out of very little. I think the show knew it never had a chance to compare to the antics of Ren & Stimpy, and instead focused on building atmosphere. Every moment in the show is a scene, and that scene is defined by its color, framing, and perspective. Richly detailed backgrounds loom over the characters and give a sense of perspective to their lives. There’s a ‘dirty city’ vibe to the whole thing, but in a way that somehow avoids being judgmental or classist.

Absolutely none of that is conveyed through what we see of Hillwood in The Jungle Movie, which is only ever shown as sterile and oversaturated. I have to wonder, how did they drop the ball so hard on this one? Hey Arnold! was a show that frankly became so formulaic as to be basically solved. Even the digital-ink-and-paint Season 5 looked better than this. When you’re working with a property that sells itself on its aesthetic values, why reinvent the wheel?

It’s worth noting that Hey Arnold!: The Movie was also digitally aided, and yet somehow managed to avoid these problems. The Movie was rough around the edges, and it had some bizarre issues with its colorization, but the end product was just clumsily off-model instead of a completely different show.

I guess that sums up most of my problems with this film: it focuses so much on being a new entry in the series that it forgets itself along the way.

Helga and Arnold

The Jungle part of the Movie is where things derail in ways I couldn’t have expected. Sure, there’s the expected stuff: pirate battles, puzzle solving, hey did you know this movie is an Indiana Jones reference? I liked Indiana Jones and I wouldn’t have wanted to watch this dang film if I didn’t. But the whole thing is so fragile. The movie can barely stand up on its own without the foundation of its many, many references, to the show and to other movies and even to itself.

The stakes have been raised preposterously high and we even have the deaths of disposable background characters, which I think is completely unprecedented in the show, but none of it feels like it means anything because the emotions are just not right. Arnold cries multiple times throughout the course of the plot, which should have felt huge because he never cried in the series and being emotionally repressed was kinda his whole thing, and it’d make perfect sense that in his situation he would be emotionally regressed. But nothing’s made of it. It just feels like the writers forgot that he doesn’t cry.

Craig promised some pretty extensive subplots for Arnold’s classmates, but all that executive-forced pandering must have elbowed that out. Nadine and Rhonda were supposed to have their friendship tested once again by Nadine’s obsession with bugs; Harold, Sid, and Stinky were going to have their own jungle quest; Eugene would suffer a wide variety of fates, including being attacked by piranhas.

In the final script, the rest of the kids are shunted into the background. At least Eugene gets something: he has an allergic reaction that turns him into a literal sphere for the rest of the film. At one point he even gets to say “I’m like the big ball in that movie!” (ACTUAL DIALOGUE)

A screenshot of the scene described above

Hey Arnold! is a show that was a lot of things, and silly is definitely one of them, but it always flew with a tether to reality. An episode like “Arnold’s Thanksgiving” was, at surface level, about Arnold being mad that his grandma was celebrating the 4th of July instead - but it doesn’t take any digging to find the undercurrent of real themes kids dealt with, like having a geriatric caretaker and having to fend for yourself. The Jungle Movie is silly and it’s serious, but it’s not real. There is a scene where Helga and Arnold find themselves hanging over a cliff facing sudden death, and they turn to look at each other and… I guess this is supposed to be the point where Arnold realizes he loves Helga? This is probably the most emotional scene in the film, and it still conveys absolutely nothing to me.

All of these problems collide once they reach the lost city, a location rendered lovingly in CGI that would have looked dated in 2004. Just look at that and tell me that isn’t straight out of a Sonic Adventure DX cutscene.

Laughably bad CGI

I don’t even know how I could explain this plotline to a Hey Arnold! fan, let alone you, so I’m sorry that this is going to be incoherent - but basically it turns out Arnold is a Very Special boy who was Chosen by a city of green-eyed Central American children, whose parents are asleep because they contracted a sleep-inducing illness. Arnold’s parents are also asleep, and that is why they had been missing for years, because they were sleeping. The word ‘coma’ is never used for whatever reason. For some reason the cure is stored in a rain machine that needs to be operated with a heart-shaped artifact, and for some reason Helga’s locket works just fine. Arnold reunites with his parents. Arnold thanks Helga for helping him, and they finally kiss for real this time.

Helga shrugging

None of this felt like closure. It felt like a bunch of events that were just happening. I felt like I was strapped into a ride I didn’t know I had stepped on.

By the end of the film I was agonizingly drunk and exhausted. Paula immediately told me the honest truth: it’s not a good movie, and it’s not what we wanted out of it.

For some reason, despite everything, I found myself defending it. “It’s actually good! I’m happy! There’s tons of magic stuff in the original show. I don’t know why you think it’s bad. It’s good.”

But it wasn’t good.

I kept finding myself wondering if anything would have been good enough to fill the shoes of what The Jungle Movie was going to be in my head. Did I want an impossible feat? Did I want a movie that would somehow bring magical closure to all of my childhood trauma?

I’ve been thinking about that since 2019 and I’ve had the entirety of quarantine to reflect over it too. At this point I’m confident to say, no, the film I was looking for was not an impossibility. Because Hey Arnold! wasn’t really that deep either, and it certainly wasn’t perfect - even my beloved “Arnold’s Thanksgiving” is weighed down by uncomfortably dated views on America. But it was sincere in a way so many other cartoons were not. Arnold felt like a real, flawed, complicated kid.

Arnold and his friends live on in Craig Bartlett’s mind, a fact impossible to ignore if you look for five seconds at his Instagram, where he happily writes bizarre fanfiction about their lives in the quarantine. I always make it a point to avoid hero-worshipping Craig just because he wrote a character I happened to relate to during a vulnerable period of my life, but also all the weird shit in The Jungle Movie really doesn’t match anything about what he said he wanted out of the film. He’s expressed enough unhappiness with the film’s production (apparently the original script was twice the length, what I wouldn’t give to read that) that I feel like maybe I can trust that he didn’t intend for this movie to be such a farce.

The two missing details that break my heart the worst are also things he explicitly spoke about wanting to include: Arnold’s parents were originally going to be dead, and Helga was going to have a bigger role in directly helping the Lost City residents (and even impressing them with her fierceness).

It feels so fucking mean to say “I wish Arnold’s parents were dead”, but I swear if you watch the show it makes a little more sense. Arnold is desperately missing a wake-up call to reality, especially since over the course of the show he becomes obsessed with solving other people’s problems as a distraction from his own. He is incredibly in denial in a way that made many fans mistake him for being annoyingly flawless - having him finally confront grief would have been a heartbreaking but sensical move for the finale. Plus … show writer Steve Viksten was the one who decided his parents would be dead, and changing that posthumously feels unnecessarily cruel.

Helga’s role in the Lost City plot would not redeem the weird White Savior tropes going on (which were extremely bizarre for the same show that gave us honest discussion of the Vietnam War), but it would give her agency she desperately needed over the course of the series. Even in The Movie her vital contributions to the plot don’t seem to amount to much, and Arnold struggles to acknowledge her. Helga has a weird case of sidekick syndrome even worse than Gerald’s, amplified by her constantly hiding her own actions. Arnold needs a step down from being the Important Special Boy, and Helga needs to actually be recognized for once.

And damn it, that’s what all those interviews promised. Even the confession was supposed to take place in a moment of sincere vulnerability and desperation for the both of them, and Arnold was going to initiate instead of what we get in the movie where he barely does anything.

I didn’t want a magical perfect movie. I just wanted the things Craig talked about: for Arnold to actually truly recognize and accept Helga, to love her for everything about her, and especially to make it clear he loves her for more than what she does for him. That’s what me and all those other awkward fucked up little girls were hanging on to - that’s why we wrote all the fanfiction - that’s why we waited for so damn long, just for a little validation that we were lovable as ourselves.

And maybe that’s why I lied to my wife and told her I thought it was a good movie, because that’s the life I got used to as a fucked up girl: being given things that are ‘good enough’ and being told that I have to be grateful.

The Jungle Movie wasn’t good enough for me. I really wish it had been, but it wasn’t.

If you liked this movie, that’s totally valid, and I’m not gonna say you weren’t a big enough fan. But I know I’m not alone, because now people are writing “fix fic” about how they wished the series had gone. At this point, I’m certain this cycle will define Hey Arnold! for the rest of its existence … and maybe I like it better that way, with a billion different answers from all the lonely isolated girls who finally found something they saw themselves in.

Arnold should have been a girl though. Rated PG for kissing. H/A. R&R plz.

Categories: tv

Tagged: 1996 2002 2020 fanfiction hey arnold internet culture nickelodeon