Craig Bartlett Recalls How Hey Arnold! Set The Stage For ’90s Cartoon Reboots

Nickelodeon goes back to the boarding house

Arnold and the Hillwood crew (Image courtesy of Nickelodeon)

Nineties cartoon fans are very protective of their era of television. So when Nickelodeon broke the news that several beloved shows would be rebooted as movies and returning to the small screen as a series, people went nuts. Fans already got a taste of nostalgia when Hey Arnold! made its eagerly anticipated return 15 years after the series ended in the form of a movie, and creator, animator and producer of the show Craig Bartlett is ready for more.

“I always loved cartoons and when I was a kid. I drew for as long as I could remember, making my own comics, but I didn’t make that connection that cartoons were made somewhere,” said Bartlett, who never knew that there was a career for animation. “It wasn’t until I started school where I saw independent animation—they had traveling animation shows of independent shorts from all over the world, which really made an impression on me—and I realized I wanted to tell stories.”

Bartlett grew up in Seattle and moved to Los Angeles in late 1980s. That’s when he decided to create his own character, Arnold, a weird-looking fourth-grader who lives in a boarding house with his grandparents. Bartlett described Arnold as a “kind of avatar” of himself.

Craig Bartlett (Photo courtesy of Bonnie Osborne/Nickelodeon)

“I wanted to make a show about how I felt about childhood and Arnold’s take on the world is similar to mine. What’s really fun about a cartoon is making the characters so much more interesting,” he says of Hey Arnold!, which was more grounded and reality based than other shows at the time. “In the ’80s, animated series for kids was at a low point. Nickelodeon’s Gerry Laybourne had a vision to make content for kids that started with live action then original animation like The Ren & Stimpy Show, Rugrats and Doug. The Simpsons get a lot of credit because they broke the door down and the rest of us followed.”

According to Bartlett, ’90s television was known as “the Go Go ’90s” because everything was a go. With a mixed bag of interesting and new shows being created, many people, including Bartlett, had the chance to make their own show.

“I was well situated for all of that,” he said of the time, adding that in 1990, he began story editing and directing the first season of Rugrats, which introduced him to the Nickelodeon executives. “In 1993, I pitched Hey Arnold! and we made the pilot in 1994.”

In 1996, Hey Arnold! soon joined the ranks of other beloved cartoons that became part of millions of kids’ weeknight and Saturday morning television programming. Kids could relate to Arnold, Gerald, Helga, Phoebe, Eugene, Harold and the dozens of other characters that became such a crucial part of growing up. Hey Arnold! The Movie was released in theaters in 2002 and 15 years later, Bartlett delivered again with Hey Arnold! The Jungle Movie, a long form TV movie, which he hoped, was the resolution fans were waiting for regarding Arnold’s long lost parents.

Arnold, Helga, Gerald and Phoebe

“When I went to Nick to talk about getting back in business with them, I made a PowerPoint to introduce them to everything in the series: the main relationships, the first 100 episodes, Helga telling Arnold how she feels about him, everything that led to the first movie,” said Bartlett, adding that when it comes to storytelling in a series, it is imperative to return to the status quo. “In The Jungle Movie, my intention was to check things off like, what’s Arnold’s last name? How does he feel about Helga? And what the hell happened to his lost parents? I did all that and really made my point after having 15 years to think about it.”

Out of the 100 episodes, Bartlett cites the emotional ones like “Helga On The Couch” (S4, Ep. 16), where viewers learn about Helga’s backstory and “Parent’s Day,” (S5, Ep. 8), which tells the saga of Arnold’s parents.

“Arnold had a hole in his heart and what drove him and made the show so compelling is that he’s such a good guy, but you feel he’s compensating for the fact that he has a big missing piece in his life,” said Bartlett. “Helga is my favorite after Arnold; she’s complex and smart and creative, she’s a great leader but she’s just really angry and mean and that episode where we show her heartbreaking backstory with her family created a new level of sympathy for her.”

After five seasons, the show ended and continues to live on in syndication. For those kids like myself who spent their childhood alongside Hey Arnold!, the animated series can still be seen on Teen Nick, Hulu and Amazon Prime.

In addition to creating Hey Arnold!—and providing the voices for Brainy, Abner, Monkeyman and Arnold’s dad, Miles—Bartlett has also worked on the PBS show Dinosaur Train and Ready Jet Go! He is always trying to work up another show, but no matter what, he would love to make more Hey Arnold!

“If people told me in 2004 when I finished Hey Arnold! that in 15 years I would put out The Jungle Movie, I wouldn’t have believed them. I think it would be fun to do a season six where Arnold tries to figure out what the new dynamic is in the house now that his parents are back,” said Bartlett, who enjoys watching the interest in his show grow via social media and with the ’90s kids. “We have three different audiences now: kids who are 6-11; the young adults who were ’90s kids and some of those who now have children themselves. It’s really cool and unexpected.”

Be on the lookout for two Hey Arnold! DVD special features: Hey Arnold! The Pilot and the Original Claymation Short: Arnold Escapes from Church.

Check out more from Long Island Weekly‘s ’90s issue:

Jennifer Fauci
Jennifer Fauci is the former managing editor of Long Island Weekly, Anton Media Group's award-winning special sections and Anton’s local magazines. Her passion for literature, travel and the arts lend to the unique content in her publications. In her time at Anton, she has received first place in the Folio Awards, second place for the NYPA awards and is the recipient of six PCLI awards.

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