[Screen It]

(2002) (voices of Spencer Klein, Paul Sorvino) (PG)

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Children's Animated Drama: A boy tries to retrieve an important document that could prevent a greedy developer from demolishing his urban neighborhood.
Arnold (voice of SPENCER KLEIN) is the optimistic kid with the football-shaped head who loves his old, urban neighborhood and living there with his grandparents (voices of DAN CASTELLANETA and TRESS MacNEILLE) and hanging out with his friend Gerald (voice of JAMIL SMITH) while putting up with Helga (voice of FRANCESCA MARIE SMITH) who's sweet on him but masks that by acting nasty toward him.

Yet, change has come to the neighborhood in the form of Mr. Scheck (VOICE OF PAUL SORVINO) and his company, Future Tech Industries. It seems that he wants to tear down the neighborhood in an "out with the old, in with the new" mentality and replace it with a gleaming shopping mall. Accordingly, he has put his sleazy right-hand man, Nick (voice of DAN CASTELLANETA), on the scene to take care of any problems.

Everyone is outraged, but soon gives up hope of stopping the developer. That is, except for Arnold. Upon hearing that their neighborhood is actually a national landmark dating back to the Revolutionary War, he and Gerald set out to find a document that can prove that and show it to the Mayor so that she'll stop Scheck.

As the clock ticks down toward the start of the demolition, Arnold - with the help of gear from spy girl Bridget (voice of JENNIFER JASON LEIGH), information from the City Coroner (voice of CHRISTOPHER LLOYD) and a mysterious phone caller known as "Deep Voice" - and his friends set out to find the document and stop Scheck's plan.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
When it comes to turning old or current TV shows into movies, the reasons for doing so usually boil down to one or two explanations. One is to take pre-existing characters and put them into a format that wasn't available - in terms of scale, setting and/or time - in the old TV show setup. The other reason, of course, is to make money by using established and thus already familiar characters to entice would-be viewers into seeing their big screen offering.

In the case of "Hey Arnold! The Movie," the emphasis seems to lean more toward the latter than the former. Based on the popular Nickelodeon TV show "Hey Arnold!" that debuted back in 1996 and is reportedly one of the more popular shows on that cable network, the film might entertain fans of the show.

However, the same might not hold true for those unfamiliar with it. That's mainly because it comes off as a bland and uninspired "full length" version of one of the show's various episodes. All of which is surprising since Nickelodeon -that's turning into the next Disney by regularly pumping out kid-friendly entertainment - has usually done a good job of transitioning its properties into feature films including those involving the Rugrats characters.

Unfortunately, the story offered here by screenwriter/producer Craig Bartlett (creator of the TV show) never transcends TV episode trappings or quality. Despite the added length and notwithstanding the intentions of teaching a civics lesson disguised as an adventurous yarn, the effort of director Tuck Tucker (making his debut) isn't of feature film standards.

In addition, it simply comes off as a mediocre retreading of previous "save our neighborhood" stories found in the likes of various other kid-based films. Even the attempts at appeasing the parents in tow and any other adults who may have wandered into the film by accident don't work that well. Cinematic references and/or spoofs of the likes of "Men in Black," "Spy Kids," "Mission: Impossible," "Speed" and even "The Shawshank Redemption" just aren't as inspired, imaginative and/or funny as they should and could have been.

Then there's the reference to Watergate's "Deep Throat" - a mysterious caller with a husky voice by the name of "Deep Voice" calls Arnold and imparts important facts and details to him - that's not only unfunny, but also completely unnecessary in terms of plot or name.

Although it appears to be a step up from what was offered on the one TV episode I viewed for comparison, the film's animation is also disappointing. While the style is obviously designed to mimic that from the show - including the drawing of the title character with his signature football-shaped head - it's not terribly visually appealing and makes one think the filmmakers were working with a limited art budget.

Much of the vocal talent from the show -- Spencer Klein ("Free Enterprise," "Mother"), Jamil Smith (making his feature debut) and Francesca Marie Smith ("Recess: School's Out") - reprise their small screen characters, while some bigger names such as Paul Sorvino ("See Spot Run," "Romeo + Juliet"), Jennifer Jason Leigh ("The Anniversary Party," "eXistenZ") and Christopher Lloyd (the "Back to the Future" films) voice some newer ones. While decent and effectively getting the job done, none are particularly noteworthy or memorable.

Politically correct (note the melting pot character collection and the anti-development stance) and far too manipulative in forcing young viewers to side with the film's kids and their goal (rather than letting them decide for themselves), the film is unfortunately an otherwise instantly forgettable and blasť big screen adaptation of the TV show.

Even the title, with its exclamation point - originally there to represent everyone yelling out the character's name - seemingly tries to imbue some energy and/or interest in the proceedings. Alas, "Hey Arnold! The Movie" comes off instead as "Arnold the Mediocre Effort." It rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed June 22, 2002 / Posted June 28, 2002

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