“Hey Arnold! The Movie” represents the latest transformation of a hit toon series from cable network Nickelodeon into a feature kidpic ripe for franchising. And, like its two “Rugrats” predecessors, pic has surprising hipness and good humor to spare, all put across with a funky, low-tech vibe. Still, this is a minor effort in both content and form by today’s animation standards, and its rough edges may be a bit too rough to attract a “Rugrats”-size stampede at the box office. But pic has lots of charm, and parents in attendance won’t feel too bored or alienated by its goings-on, while kids will lap it up. With a June 28 opening slated (counterprogrammed against Sony’s Adam Sandler starrer “Mr. Deeds”), niche biz looks promising for this, perhaps youngest-skewing of the major-studio summer releases.
A late addition to the family sidebar at the inaugural Tribeca Film Festival, pic proves an appropriate choice; though set in an unnamed metropolis, “Hey Arnold!” gives off a distinctly Gotham feel. Its city features crowded brownstones and rail transportation, while the working-class, multiethnic block where most of the action takes place vividly recalls Spike Lee’s Brooklyn.
Everything is a little topsy-turvy in the “Hey Arnold!” universe, beginning with its eponymous protagonist (voiced by Spencer Klein), whose elongated head suggests a flattened-out football and who lives (for reasons unexplained) with his borderline-senile grandparents in a ramshackle dormitory. Other key players are Arnold’s best friend Gerald (Jamil Walker Smith) and his semi-arch-nemesis Helga (Francesca Marie Smith), who secretly loves Arnold but cloaks her infatuation in hate.
Action centers around a maniacal land developer named Scheck has decided to bulldoze and redevelop Arnold’s neighborhood. Arnold and his neighbors exhaust official channels in their quest to halt the impending demolition, going so far as to stage a free outdoor concert — called Blockapalooza — that accomplishes nothing.
So, Arnold and Gerald (with a little surreptitious help from Helga) take matters into their own hands, embarking on a heroic odyssey through the city, during which they cross paths with such colorful characters as a Bond Girl-esque spy voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh and a ghostly city coroner voiced by Christopher Lloyd.
There’s definitely an odd grimness permeating the surface of “Hey Arnold!,” but it works. Pic has a genuine interest in engaging children’s imaginations, and understands a certain amount of dark goes well with the light. It’s not as twisted as, say, Roald Dahl, but it’s undeniably smart and appealing in its depiction of everyday superheroes rallying behind a noble cause. The acidic qualities nicely counterbalance the saccharine, and though there’s the hint of polemics — a civics lesson from the anti-gentrification brigade — the film never gets too high-minded. There’s genuine affection here for the virtues of neighborhood color preserved.
The animation, though hand-drawn, has an exaggerated flatness that gives “Hey Arnold!” an engaging look that seems to grow organically out of its characters’ quirky tics and moods. They pop out, literally and figuratively, from the traditional toon landscape.
Pic is peppered with amusing sly references to a disparate array of Hollywood blockbusters, from “Men in Black” to “All the President’s Men.”