Hey Arnold! Complete First Season DVD ReviewA tv review article by: Nick Hanover
There's a lot of talk about accessibility these days, but you hardly see much of a spotlight on an area that often really gets accessibility: cartoons. Shout! Factory's recent release of Hey Arnold! season one is a near perfect example of how well done cartoons can be fully accessible to anyone, without appearing to try too hard at it. In its first season on Nickelodeon, Hey Arnold! kicked off with an episode that throws viewers right into its world, without exposition heavy character introductions or clunky dialogue explaining what the show's point was or who it was for.
We learn about Arnold and his friend Gerald through context as they decide to skip out on a play Helga, an especially bossy classmate, has written and directed and in which they're supposed to star. Arnold and Gerald are tired of Helga's antics and as they ride the bus to the play, they make the decision to stay on board and find out where the end of the line is. The episode could have come at any time in the season and that's the point: sometimes the best introduction is just a good story period, rather than one that spends all its time spinning its wheel a la DC's relaunched Justice League.
That may seem like an odd comparison but it really isn't, especially since Hey Arnold! began life as a comic by showrunner and creator Craig Bartlett. Both series are devoted to a large cast of characters with a small section "starring" at the center, except instead of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman we have Arnold and Gerald, two kids who mean well but always get in trouble, and Helga, the girl who antagonizes them while secretly nursing a crush on one. Arnold's first episode similarly introduces the deep urban setting of the show with minimal fuss, casually referencing the environment these kids are living in without calling too much attention to it.
Arnold and Gerald are clearly living in an area of town that isn't the best (the first episode even has them getting mistaken for two drug dealers), but it's never preachy about that fact. Similarly, the show has an admirably diverse group of characters of varying ethnicities and backgrounds, but that too is never a focal point, just a natural, every day part of city life and even Arnold's own parentless home life isn't milked for sentimentality. This is a show that doesn't pander or come across as heavy handed yet nonetheless has plenty of admirable qualities that only bolster its worth to something beyond disposable kids' entertainment.
Of course, none of this would really matter if it didn't bring that entertainment value as well. Hey Arnold! debuted at the tail end of a golden era for Nickelodeon and its style is right in line with several shows from that time, like Rocko's Modern Life and Rugrats (for which Bartlett also wrote), with its distinct, heavily detailed animation design. But while many of those Nickelodeon classics utilized a fast-paced, goofy humor, Hey Arnold! is more carefully paced and often leans on clever visual choreography and deft characterization for its humor. Hey Arnold! is also unique in its cinematic presentation, with scenes mimicking film techniques and an expert use of music and montage.
Many of the show's best episodes, like "Eugene's Bike" and "Field Trip" aren't even all that funny, instead concerned with telling profound stories with an air of sadness. "Field Trip" in particular is a standout, structured as a heist movie-like bust, except the breakout in this instance is for a sad turtle at the local aquarium. That episode even manages to cram in a reference to The Prisoner and while its ending is bittersweet, what with Lock Jaw the turtle swimming off in a bay full of garbage and who knows what else, it's still a brilliantly constructed bit of moral escapist fantasy. Other standouts push that escapist fantasy element even further, like "Stoop Kid" ( an early example of the urban legend storylines Hey Arnold! became notable for) which utilizes dream imagery, merging the surreal wonder of childhood imagination with a plot heavily grounded in the more mundane aspects of neighborhood life, in this case getting a lost football back.
Taken as an entire season, the episodes heavy on the imagination element also act as a buffer for the more casual Hey Arnold! episodes, like the romance driven "Operation: Ruthless," and the more cinematic, emotional episodes mentioned before. More recent kids' cartoons sometimes forget to offer that variety and balance and it can make for an exhausting viewing, and so did some of Arnold's own contemporaries, but maybe that's the intention. The levity of those more fantastical episodes also occasionally slips into the heavier episodes, specifically "Mugged," which takes a relatively frightening storyline, Arnold getting mugged, and turns it into an opportunity for a Karate Kid-like scenario for Arnold as his grandma teaches him to defend himself.
But at its heart, "Mugged" is simply about child empowerment, just like most of Hey Arnold! and great children's entertainment on the whole, and its greatest value comes in the willingness to be open about adult issues with kids in a safe and friendly way. "Mugged" even hinges on epic hero tropes, as Arnold's empowerment and path to power leads to his own downfall as a result of his hubris, only for him to rise again once he's acknowledged his power tripping. Sure, that sounds heavy for a kids' cartoon, but so is most classic children's literature when you think about it. It's also not even the heaviest episode thematically, as season one also saw Arnold facing his own "mortality" with the fittingly melodramatic "24 Hours to Live." Weirdly, that episode is also the most slapstick, hinging on a decidedly Chuck Jones-esque dance sequence from Arnold; it's also a recreation of the short that introduced Arnold to the world at the beginning of theatrical screenings of Harriet the Spy.
Those kinds of juxtapositions are likely a big part of why Hey Arnold! was such a hit, running for eight years on Nickelodeon and spawning a feature length film. That means that Arnold not only managed to be more accessible than most comics, it also ran for longer than most recent efforts manage to as well. Shout! Factory's season one collection may be short on the bonus features (in fact, as near as I can tell there are none), but even so, this series will thrill anyone who enjoys animated series or who wants to give their kids something that has substance and is entertaining.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon.