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.
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.
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.
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.
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.