Justin Cook spoke with Hey Arnold! creator Craig Bartlett and voice actress Francesca Marie Smith while attending New York Comic Con. Check out their conversation below…
Hey Arnold! fans have waited well over a decade for answers to questions surrounding the show’s titular kind-hearted, football-shape-headed grade schooler and, in approximately one week, answers they will get. Expect childhood nostalgia levels to reach whole new heights with the release of Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie, a continuation of the popular 1994 animated Nickelodeon series.
The long-planned two-hour TV movie will take place one year after Hey Arnold!’s final episode, 2002’s “The Journal” and will see Arnold and his P.S. 118 fifth-grade buddies setting out on the field trip of a lifetime and uncovering the mystery behind the disappearance of Arnold’s parents.
Originally intended for theatrical release, The Jungle Movie was shelved after Nickelodeon instead decided to release Arnold Saves the Neighborhood (subsequently titled Hey Arnold!: The Movie) into theaters worldwide in the early 2000s. After spending years in development purgatory, Nickelodeon finally announced that The Jungle Movie would become a reality, with Hey Arnold! creator Craig Barlett returning to write and produce. Much of the original voice cast decided to reprise their roles for the project, including Dan Castellaneta (Grandpa Phil), Tress MacNeille (Grandma Gertie), Anndi McAfee (Phoebe Heyerdahl), Justin Shenkarow (Harold Bergman), Olivia Hack (Rhonda Wellington), Lane Toran (formerly Arnold, returning as a new character named Che) and Francesca Marie Smith (Helga Pataki). In fact, Smith had transitioned away from the world of voice acting since her work on the show and stepped out of retirement to bring some closure to herself and Hey Arnold! fans.
Flickering Myth sat down for a conversation with both Barlett and Smith at New York Comic Con, where they talked about working on the original series, The Jungle Movie, what the future of Hey Arnold! holds and more.
So, to start off, where did the inspiration for Hey Arnold, the original series, come from?
Craig Barlett: I remember I had come to Los Angeles to work on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, I did the penny cartoons for Pee-Wee. I realized, as soon as that job ended, ten weeks later, ‘It’s time for Craig to create his own cartoon.’ I knew I had to just come up with my own cartoon character, and I thought the first thing I would do was just make little short films because then I would have something to show for myself. When I came to pitch Hey Arnold! years later, even then, I had little Arnold shorts that Mary Harrington [a Nickelodeon executive] could watch. What was nice about those shorts was that your own tone and way you would tell a joke [both came through], and it was something I could afford to make. I made it in my little rental house in LA in my living room. A very humble first effort to make my own little story was why I created Arnold. And then in 1993, when I met with Mary, and I was actually with a bunch of Rugrats writers, we were all trying as a group to pitch stuff. Our pitches all flopped, they didn’t want what we brought, and then we were sitting around eating lunch with them and [Nickelodeon executives] said, ‘Well, what else have you got?’ I got out my sample reel, and it included the Arnold short and the rest is history. Mary said, ‘Come back by yourself and tell me what we could do with this character.’ Then, I came back with the very simple premise which was ‘Arnold lives in an old boarding house with his eccentric grandparents and these wacky boarders under a freeway overpass… the end.’ The first shorts that I had made featured Helga and Harold in the classroom as, clearly, mean bullies. My wife said, ‘If you’re gonna make this into a series, you need a little bit more than this one-dimensional bully. What if she secretly liked him?’ So, my wife’s idea that Helga could secretly like Arnold was probably the very best idea of the whole series.
Francesca Marie Smith: I don’t think I knew that!
Barlett: From then on, Arnold could be this cool, zen guy that everything happens around. He’s the center of everything, but he doesn’t have to say much. He never has to brag. And Helga, to us, the audience, breaks the fourth wall with her little soliloquies with that locket and says all the great stuff about who he is. And, we found out, from years later, that all those messages landed, and the adults, who talk about the series now, they could tell you all that stuff. But when we were starting we didn’t know. We were just taking our best shot. So that’s basically how it started.
And for you, Francesca, what was it like portraying a bully that wasn’t one-dimensional? That had a reason for bullying and used it as a defense mechanism against her family and some other problems in her life.
Smith: Well, I will say that a lot of it went over my head at the time. I was young and thankfully, I hadn’t suffered. [laughs] It hadn’t even occurred to me that these were big issues that were gonna be impactful to a lot of people, between the way her parents treated her and the issues that she had with Ulga as well. A lot of it just felt kind of natural, like, ‘Oh, she’s angry so she’s gonna yell about it. Oh, she feels strongly so she’s gonna have a little soliloquy about it.’ All of it just felt like a very natural amplification of feelings that were super organic to me. That’s why I talk about the voice, as being totally my natural voice just with an emotional range that, for sake of comedy and storytelling, gets pushed to eleven.
Barlett: Isn’t it amazing? You think about how you hadn’t even had the experiences yet to even know what that range was… where did you find it? She found it, man! She found it on day one when she came in to audition and she was a tiny 9-year-old, she was killing! I remember we were busy, and we had a whole list of auditions that day, and I was looking at the list, and I heard her reading the aside we had written for her, which was probably a little two page scene in the pilot, and we were like, who the hell is that? And it was like, well, we found our Helga! So, I mean, where did you find that? Where did you dig up that rage?
Smith: I’m trying to think if my brother was auditioning with me that day. Maybe, I was just really mad at him. [laughs]
Barlett: We did [the audition] at Ren & Stimpy. That was 1994.
Smith: But, I don’t know, I’m trying to think if I had played any other characters that had that sort of breath, but the other things I did were all pretty normal little girl things.
Barlett: For on-camera stuff, she would have played a sweet little girl.
Smith: I had done Blossom right around that time too, and she was also a terror.
Barlett: She can do rage!
Smith: Rage and goth. Those were my modes.
What was it like returning to the character of Helga for The Jungle Movie after over a decade away from it and also just returning to voice acting in general?
Smith: Exactly — I’m even trying to remember the last time I was on stage. I had done other performance-ish things, but really coming back and doing something like [voicing Helga], it had been a long time. It felt better than I expected. I didn’t really have expectations of how it was going to feel, but I do know that it was so gratifying. Not just doing the table read, but when you finally get in the booth and you’re flexing those muscles, it felt, unfortunately, like a very true version of myself and I was like ‘Man, I’ve been blowing it! This whole PhD thing, what am I thinking.’ [laughs] There is something deeply cathartic about being able to go to those emotional places that you don’t in everyday life.
Barlett: Helga’s emotional journey in The Jungle Movie is incredible.
Smith: The lines are just really fun. It sounds so inane to say that, but they’re well-written, they’re quippy. They feel really good. It’s as though somebody were following you around telling you how to say smart things all the time. [to Craig] Can I actually hire you? [laughs]
Whose reactions are you guys more curious about, the younger fans that are gonna watch The Jungle Movie, or the older fans, who grew up with the show and are maybe parents of their own now?
Barlett: The kids. I’m curious that this will land with our actual 6 to 11-year-old audience that Nickelodeon is about. Who I want to take care of are those people that we’ve been interacting with for a decade and more.
Smith: We absolutely have a responsibility to the pre-existing fans. We have a gauntlet thrown down with them. But at the same time there’s a real privilege in having a new potential audience to which we can say ‘Well, what do you think? Does this still hold water? Beyond the nostalgia factor, do you like this?’
And could that new audience lead to a new series, a revival, a sixth season?
Barlett: Well, yes and no. I tried this script to do everything. It was supposed to pick it up where we left off, it was supposed to take you to somewhere new, it was supposed to answer all those questions. When I pitched this to the network, I said there’s three burning questions. One, what’s his last name? Two, does Arnold feel the same way that Helga feels about him? And three, whatever happened to his missing parents? I said the movie will take care of those questions. Personally, I made sure that it buttoned everything up and then when you finished, now they were starting the first day of sixth grade. It was kind of meant to be the perfect, ‘Well, that would be cool. Let’s see a season 6 where they go to sixth grade.’
Smith: It’s not heavy-handed, but I think the starting points are there to spark some, ‘Well, and then what happens.’
Barlett: I just tried to make it all things.
Smith: And honestly, I genuinely think we did it.
Barlett: If we never get to do more, you can be very happy to have gotten your answers to those big burning questions.
Your favorite Football Head is back and is headed for the big screen! Venture along with Arnold, Gerald, Helga, and the rest of the P.S. 118 crew on the field trip of a lifetime! Will Arnold find his parents after all these years? Will Helga finally confess her undying love for Arnold? Will your heartstrings be able to handle this flick?
Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie airs on Nickelodeon in the US on November 24th at 7 pm (EST).