The 90s were filled with a lot of animated shows that became iconic and changed television forever with most of them coming from Nickelodeon. There are many great and iconic shows I can name from "Ren and Stimpy", "Rugrats", "Rocko's Modern Life", and one of the best was "Hey Arnold!" It was a fun little slice of life show about a nine-year-old boy named Arnold Shortman and his life growing up in the neighborhood with best friend Gerald and bully Helga who also secretly has a crush on him. It was a cute and fun show and like many of the shows on the network, it was one that would be perfect for the big screen. Creator Craig Bartlett came up with a good plot for a film involving his friends on a jungle adventure, but Nickelodeon chose a plot for a TV special instead for his big-screen debut and I think it was a huge mistake because the theatrical film from 2002, "Hey Arnold! The Movie" is simply dreadful. I've seen many animated films based on shows throughout my years as a critic and this is easily one of the worst I've ever seen which is a real shame because the show is really great and fun, but this film is such a clunky mess that barely works as a film and it only made me scratch my head by the end of it.
Arnold (Spencer Klein) and his friend Gerald (Jamil Walker Smith) are in a dilemma. After coming home from a basketball game, they have learned that Arnold's neighborhood is on the verge of a chopping block when they learn that the company FutureTech Industries led by CEO Scheck (Paul Sorvino) is planning on tearing down the neighborhood and planning to turn the area into a shopping mall. Arnold is unhappy with this news and he along with his friends except for local bully Helga (Francesca Marie Smith) try to protest the demolition with no success. With the clock ticking down, Arnold soon discovers from his grandfather (Dan Castellaneta) that the neighborhood is part of a historic area thanks to something called the "tomato incident". With the news, Arnold and Gerald soon team up to figure out how to prove the neighborhood is a historic area and stop Scheck from tearing it down while getting tips and hits from a secret person named Deep Voice. I'm sure you can figure out the rest of the film from there.
I was so baffled by this film when I saw it. I couldn't figure out how a cartoon so good could spawn a film that bad since a lot of the choices made in this film felt wrong to me. Before I watched it, I decided to do some digging into the production to figure out what went wrong and what I found out made me even more baffled. This film was initially envisioned and planned as a 60-minute special intended for television by Craig Bartlett while a different premise involving Arnold and his class going to a Central American jungle to find Arnold's missing parents was the initial intent for the film. However, the special ended up doing really well in test screenings and Nickelodeon and Paramount decided to bump this film up to a theatrical release not to mention they got greedy off the box office success of the two "Rugrats" films and thought they could repeat the same for this film. That was a huge mistake. It took years for Bartlett to make the "Hey Arnold!" film with the jungle premise which became "Hey Arnold! The Jungle Movie" in 2017 and I wish that was the film we got in theaters instead. "The Jungle Movie" was filled with so much excitement, hilarious jokes, great twists, animation stepped up from the show, and great character development. This film, on the other hand, has none of that. The big problem with the film comes right down to the story which is what truly sinks the entire film. The premise of a bunch of kids stopping developers from tearing down an area they love is one of the most unoriginal and generic premises you could come up with and this film sadly adds nothing new to that premise but rather resorts on the tiresome cliches were all too familiar with. There are no surprises to be found here and I was just left incredibly bored throughout the entire film. I also thought the pacing was also a mess as well with the whole film feeling so fast that it felt like it was rushing to be over. It's evident right from the beginning when we see Arnold and Gerald immediately come home to discover the developer's plans and not even five minutes go by when we see that almost a month has gone by in the film and there are only two days left. The passage of time feels nonexistent and vacant with the whole film feeling like it took place in a day. Even the climax is unimpressive with a bus chase feeling rather dull and unexciting rather than thrilling and enticing. It's such a mess. There's a couple of good moments in the film including one where Arnold tours around the soon to be demolished neighborhood and hearing stories from the residents about the area they loved as well as some funny references to "All the Presidents Men" and "The Incredible Hulk", but they're not enough to make up for the poor execution of the premise. I'll give credit to Bartlett and the crew for doing the best they could with the premise since it wasn't the one they wanted for a film.
As far as the animation goes, it feels rather unimpressive. The film was made for a relatively low budget of $3-4 million and it shows. It looks no better than the show and at times really has some rather awkward-looking shots involving CGI vehicles that really stick out from the chalk-like backgrounds like a sore thumb. None of the colors are eye-catching and the whole film comes off looking duller than mud. I'm serious, the film looks very mucky and brown at times and it was not really appealing. I also thought the characters were unimpressive at all. Arnold and Gerald really have no development throughout the film apart from their goal of needing to stop the developers and even Arnold's relationship with Helga in this film feels rather unearned and forced. It pales in comparison to "The Jungle Movie" where all three characters had great development in the film and had moments that felt earned, particularly the stuff between Arnold and Helga. It just makes this film all the more frustrating. Though nothing frustrated me more than the villain, Scheck. This is a terrible villain that has no threatening qualities to him whatsoever, looks unopposing, sounds dull, and comes off as repetitive by repeating a lot of the same dialogue over and over again. We constantly hear from him that he believes "change is good", but we don't get any insight on why he wants to tear down this neighborhood at all other than he just is. Even Sorvino's performance feels rather uninspired and he mostly sounds like he's phoning it in. It's really frustrating. Arnold's grandparents have some funny moments with grandpa trying to use dynamite to blow up a hole to stop the bulldozers while grandma (Tress MacNeille) is constantly trying to break out of prison reenacting scenes from "The Shawshank Redemption" where Andy Dufresne escapes the prison. Stuff like that was fun, but it was sadly sandwiched into a rather unimpressive film.
In all, "Hey Arnold! The Movie" is a frustrating film to watch. The story comes off unoriginal with huge pacing issues, the animation doesn't seem any better from the show, and the characters don't have any interesting traits here that are different from the show. This is not only one of the worst animated films based on a Nickelodeon show, but one of the worst animated films based on a show I've seen. I feel bad for Bartlett and the crew. They tried their best with the film and I got to commend them for that. This film is entirely Nickelodeon and Paramount's fault. If you want to watch a better movie based on "Hey Arnold!", watch "The Jungle Movie" instead. That was a great film that lives up to the show and is one of the best-animated films based on a show. This film though is pretty much what Scheck thinks of the neighborhood, a mess.