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Hey Arnold premiered 20 years ago, but its hard lessons are still as relevant as ever

“Life’s a little disappointing.”

Helga, Arnold, and Gerald take it outside

Twenty years ago today, an improbably sweet kid with an impossibly big, football-shaped head stepped out onto his stoop and straight into the hearts of kids with big dreams and even bigger feelings.

In the years after Hey Arnold officially premiered in October 1996, the Nickelodeon cartoon quickly became one of the go-to examples of how Nickelodeon’s animated programming was crushing it. Arnold wasn’t an immediate sensation like Rugrats, with its helium-voiced toddlers fretting their way through backyard adventures, nor could it touch the raunchy splash of gross-out weirdos like Ren and Stimpy or Aaahh! Real Monsters.

But as much as other Nickelodeon shows tried to straddle the line between kids’ entertainment and sly nods to adults, no show nailed that balance quite like Hey Arnold.

The series slowly but surely gained a fan base that appreciated its refusal to talk down to kids or invalidate their everyday conflicts and disappointments. Arnold and his fourth-grade cohorts — from smooth jokester Gerald to the scene-stealing Helga G. Pataki — are fierce and protective of each other and their city.

Hey Arnold wove urban legends into its empathetic narrative of how hard it can be to grow up — and how rewarding the process can be when you have some friends and a whole lot of imagination.

With a new Hey Arnold movie slated to premiere in late 2017, series creator Craig Bartlett is grateful for the chance to get back to the story of how Arnold’s parents disappeared, and is currently up to his perpetually wide eyeballs in the story fans have been hoping for since the series ended in 2003.

In fact, Bartlett’s been watching and interacting with his fans for years, whether through his Instagram, their fan art, or the Pictionary-esque app DrawSomething, where he and fans swap answers in terms of Hey Arnold characters. When the time for the movie came, he even enlisted a few of his favorite fan artists to work on the Hey Arnold movie.

“An ideal crew for a rebooted Hey Arnold would be half returning vets and half next-generation people, so we could get that cool blend of people,” Bartlett told Vox earlier this year. “Someone who [loved Hey Arnold] as their favorite show, and people who made that favorite show in the first place.” The same holds true for writing, with two of the younger Hey Arnold movie screenwriters being fans of the show as kids.

“TV’s cool, man,” Bartlett continued. “TV just sort of … lives. People can watch those episodes right now.” He paused, then grinned. “It’s sort of like it just happened, in a way.”

The first panel for Hey Arnold: Arnold and his Grandma hanging out at the boarding house.
Courtesy of Craig Bartlett

Hey Arnold began as an offhand claymation exercise years before Arnold became an emblem of 1990s childhood

Bartlett got his start in 1987 on PeeWee’s Playhouse, where he worked on the claymation “Penny” cartoon interstitials. That’s when he molded a piece of clay into an unusually oblong head-shape, and thus, Arnold was born.

Not that he knew quite what he had at the time. When he and his colleagues went in to Nickelodeon to pitch shows to NickToons producer Mary Harrington, Bartlett offered up several ideas that had nothing to do with Arnold at all — until they all bombed, and he had to scramble for another idea.

When someone prodded Bartlett to share one of the Penny cartoons featuring Arnold, “Mary loved them,” Bartlett said, laughing. “She said, ‘Why don’t we do this? What do you got on this guy?’” He showed her a comic panel he had sketched out for Simpsons Illustrated — which shows Arnold jolting awake from a dream with a panicked yell — and that was that.

Hey Arnold creator Craig Bartlett with his original claymation Arnold figures.
Courtesy of Craig Bartlett

Soon enough, Bartlett was developing a show that he called “Charlie Brown for the ’90s,” starring an earnest kid who lived with his grandparents in a crowded boarding house tucked under a freeway overpass.

He pushed it as “a cool, escapist fantasy where these kids are unsupervised.” They’d dart around a city that was a mashup of Portland, Seattle, and New York, where they could “meet at night and run around and have urban adventures.”

But as fun as that sounds, not everything got wrapped in a convenient bow by the time the credits rolled.

“[We were] making a show about a sensitive kid that really reflected emotionally what it’s really like to be a kid,” Bartlett said. “You’re kind of powerless. The adults run everything, and you don’t really have a say, where you have to make your own world.”

If you’re surprised by that devastating description, you might not remember — or be familiar with — Hey Arnold’s tendency to take a left turn from childhood games into a bruising lesson about the realities of being a tiny fish in an enormous pond.

“That was very much how my childhood was,” said Bartlett, more fondly than it might sound on paper. “I just sort of had a huge inner life, because I didn’t think anyone knew or cared what I was doing. So I just kind of made up a dream world.”

The world of Hey Arnold is vast, but it’s held up by two characters who couldn’t be more different: Arnold and Helga G. Pataki

Arnold and Helga, true-blue opposites.
Courtesy of Craig Bartlett

Barrett — who after Hey Arnold moved on to create Dinosaur Train and Ready Jet Go for PBS — still loves to talk about everything from the dream world he cooked up for Hey Arnold to his favorite episodes to his characters’ family histories.

He can quote episodes verbatim, and at length. If he can sense that you may pledge allegiance to a particular character — like, say, that the aforementioned Helga G. Pataki might have shaped much of your worldview as a creative kid with a seething temper — he’ll gladly dive into his mental highlight reel to give you some meaningful background you might’ve missed.

Helga in particular gets a ton of fan love, said Bartlett. Many of his most vocal fans are women who saw themselves in her. In fact, Bartlett said of his experience making Hey Arnold, “The executives at Nickelodeon — who at that time were almost all female — related to [Helga]. ... She almost took over the show.”

Watching Hey Arnold, it’s easy to understand why. While Arnold anchors the show with a quiet gravity, Helga is always erupting, unable to keep her gigantic, ferocious feelings inside.

Though Helga started the series as an unrepentant bully, a suggestion from Bartlett’s wife, Lisa, veered Helga’s story in a different direction: As resentful as Helga is toward the world, she’s also desperately in love with the quiet kid with a tiny baseball hat perched on his football head.

Bartlett’s also quick to credit voice artist Francesca Marie Smith for Helga’s enduring appeal. He calls the singular voice of Helga “a revelation,” and is thrilled to pieces that Smith — who didn’t act much beyond Hey Arnold — will continue to voice her onscreen counterpart for the Hey Arnold movie, more than 20 years after she first got the part.

“We started rolling and she just ripped those lines,” said Bartlett of Smith’s first audition for Helga. “It was just ferocious. I looked through the glass, and it was this tiny kid. I was like, ‘I’ve got to write for this kid.’”

And lo, Helga G. Pataki became a unibrowed force of will with a wrestler’s snarling fury and a Shakespearean heroine’s earnest, fluttering heart.

“She could kick anyone’s ass,” said Bartlett fondly. “[But] Helga’s also smart, funny, really creative, and poetic … she’s got a lot going on. She’s a really cool kid.”

But even though Helga and Arnold balanced the show in two vastly different directions, they still managed to learn the same lesson over and over, which quickly became Hey Arnold’s signature worldview: Life is messy, and, a lot of the time, pretty devastating.

Hey Arnold set itself apart by refusing to simplify some of life’s harder lessons

Over the years, Hey Arnold has gained a reputation for being one of the more devastating kids’ shows probably ever. As much fun as Arnold and friends had exploring their bizarro city, they learned just as many crushing lessons along the way.

Arnold, for one, has what Bartlett calls “a huge hole in his heart,” due to his mysteriously missing parents. Helga’s family neglects her to the point that she barely feels like more than a poltergeist in their presence; her mother even drinks “smoothies” that the Hey Arnold sound team would slyly amp up with clinking ice sounds to hint that there’s always a shot of liquid courage floating around in there.

And even though Arnold spends most of his time trying to help people, the beautiful and sad thing about Hey Arnold is that it only barely helped. As it turns out, people are a lot more complicated than an 11-minute cartoon might allow.

“The classic Arnold episodes end with Arnold having helped somebody … slightly,” said Bartlett, pointing to the infamous “Stoop Kid” episode as an example. When Arnold finds out the neighborhood bully is harassing people from his stoop because he’s too afraid to leave it, he coaches the kid to overcome his fear — which only ends up giving Stoop Kid the courage to chase kids down the sidewalk to his heart’s content.

“Arnold’s a good kid, and he means a lot to all these people, but he’s not fixing anyone. That truth really resonated with us,” said Bartlett. “Life is a little disappointing, and you don’t always get what you want.”

It’s this perspective, this willingness to dive into some of the most bruising revelations to come with growing up, that made Hey Arnold stand on its own among its flashier, wackier peers — and what earned it the kind of fan devotion that lives on to this day, inspiring a new movie to continue Arnold’s story two decades after it began.

“Twenty years later, to have this crack at it … that just adds to the poignancy,” Bartlett said. “Everyone’s been waiting this long — and they haven’t forgotten.”

Hey Arnold: The Jungle Movie is set to debut in November 2017.