This article was originally published in the Den of Geek magazine SDCC special edition. Click here to view the full issue.
At a time in Hollywood when old intellectual property is constantly being repackaged as a hot new fall show, or networks drum up half-hearted nostalgia by giving past-their-prime sitcoms a victory lap, Nickelodeon is in the unique position of having fans actively campaign to revive their favorite cartoons from the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.
This fall, Hey Arnold! returns to Nickelodeon for a feature-length TV special called Hey Arnold: The Jungle Movie. It will kick off a slate of revivals, which will include Rocko’s Modern Life and Invader Zim specials, that are set to air in 2018. The executives at Nickelodeon rang up the creators of these beloved cartoons seemingly out of the blue. They saw interest from outside—Nickelodeon has had a successful run with its ‘90s programming block called “The Splat”—and from within.
“I think one of the big factors is the fans grew up and became part of the professional workforce, part of the media, social media, and animation,” says Hey Arnold! creator Craig Bartlett on the roots of the Nicktoon revivals. “A third of Nickelodeon’s employees were of that age—25 to 30—and fans of the show. They had a town hall meeting and asked what the employees thought Nick should be doing. And a lot of them said, ‘Why don’t you bring back Hey Arnold!?’”
Bartlett didn’t need much convincing. He originally planned a second Hey Arnold! film that would answer the questions of the 2004 series finale, but Nickelodeon decided to cancel the series and leave Arnold’s story on a cliffhanger. “I felt really bad for a long time,” Bartlett recalls. “I made this cliffhanger and broke the hearts of children everywhere. It wasn’t intentional. That’s the ups and downs of showbiz.”
In the emotional finale, “The Journal,” Arnold learns more about his long-lost parents when he stumbles upon his father’s old journal and finds a map that could lead to their whereabouts. Hey Arnold: The Jungle Movie will finally give Arnold the chance to go on the adventure of a lifetime and search for his parents.
Stylistically, Arnold is getting a light refresh (don’t worry, he still has that football-shaped head), but they shied away from a complete reboot. “It’s not only supposed to be this satisfying conclusion to Arnold’s questions of where his parents are, but it’s also supposed to reintroduce all these characters to the next generation,” Bartlett says.
Nickelodeon is taking a similar approach with Rocko’s Modern Life, hoping to bridge the gap from old fans to the network’s youthful core audience.
Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling will be a meta take on Hollywood’s wave of nostalgia projects, bringing Rocko, Filburt, Heffer, and Spunky into 2018. Joe Murray, the creator of Rocko’s Modern Life, felt satisfied enough with the show’s original four seasons to blast his main characters off into space in the series finale.
Rocko, the anthropomorphic wallaby who taught us Garbage Day and Laundry Day are both “very dangerous” days, is going to land on Earth 22 years after we last saw him. Plenty has changed since. Rocko is slow to adapt to technology and believes nostalgia can save him from the cruel modern world while Filburt and Heffer are quick to embrace the joys of the internet age. The transition should be smooth for a series that was way ahead of its time. “Conglom-O Corporation” is basically just Amazon at this point.
Rocko’s Modern Life got a second wind from “The Splat,” and Murray says he has noticed a renewed activity in recent years, from merchandising opportunities to a big uptick in interest on social media. But even he was caught off guard when Nickelodeon was circling Rocko as its next classic Nicktoon special.
“I was one of the most surprised of anybody,” Murray says as he takes a long pause before filling the silence with a loud chuckle.
For the project to work, Murray brought back the entire original voice cast and aimed to keep it as close to the original as possible, which like its predecessor Ren and Stimpy, appealed to all ages.
“Even in the ‘90s, we were always keeping in mind that it was a younger audience, but that it would appeal to different age groups,” Murray remembers. “There’s a kid issue involved in the main storyline and there’s lots of great visual animation. It serves all the audiences.”
Nostalgia may be at the heart of the Nicktoon revival, but for Bartlett it’s just as much about unfinished business. For Murray, he has something to say about our current times and believes he can do it in a way that is true to the tone of the original run.
Both Bartlett and Murray took a break from production to speak with Den of Geek about the upcoming revivals, and what the future could hold for their beloved Nicktoons.
Craig Bartlett – Creator of Hey Arnold
DEN OF GEEK: Were you always looking to bring Hey Arnold! back? How did we end up with a new feature-length movie?
CRAIG BARTLETT: Fifteen years ago this summer, we had just put out The Hey Arnold! Movie. We had already been developing another one, which we always called “The Jungle Movie,” and they’re like, “Well, we’re not going to do it. This is kind of one and done for the feature.”
The problem was we made our last regular episode a one-hour special called “The Journal,” which was meant to be a prequel to “The Jungle Movie.” Arnold finds his dad’s old journal and learns a lot about his missing parents in the back at the very end. He opens the last page, it was kind of stuck together, and he finds this map. And it’s like, “Grandma, Grandpa, I found the map!” Dun dun dun dun, big cliffhanger music and out. And so, I had originally done that on purpose to dare Nick Movies to not make The Jungle Movie. But the show still got cancelled. It’s just the way it goes. That’s the ups and downs of showbiz.
It really did seem like an idea whose time came, because the fans grew up and were in the most powerful position to influence the culture. You know? So that’s a really cool story. I love that story.
The film will be closure for the old fans. But it also needs to introduce the cartoon for a new generation. How did you approach that?
We always talk about our actual audience, the kids. It’s not only supposed to be this satisfying conclusion to Arnold’s questions of where his parents are, but it’s also supposed to reintroduce all these characters to the next generation. And I tried to make it end in a way where it was set up that they were going to go into sixth grade. Wouldn’t that be cool if it got rebooted, and we could do a season 6 where they’re now two years older and they’re going into sixth grade? So I tried to do all those things; answer all the questions; and set it up so they could go on.
I think to kids now and 20 years ago, and 20 years from now, they love stories about friendship. And so Arnold’s best friendship with Gerald, and Helga’s best friendship with Phoebe, are really featured in the movie and then dramatized as much as I could, because kids love stories about friends going on an adventure.
On the creative side, you’ve talked about how fans of the show have grown up and now work for Nickelodeon. Did you look to mix up the creative team with old and new talent?
That was a big part of the discussion. We said we had acknowledged the fact that kids have grown up and become adults, super fans, and many were working in the biz. So Nickelodeon said, “We think that’s a good story. We think a really cool part of this narrative is that the fans have grown up and now they’re cartoon makers. It would be really cool if they work on the show.” And so it was a negotiation between me and Nickelodeon to add the next generation to the crew. It’s a really cool mix of old school Hey Arnold! people who made the show in the first place, and new school Hey Arnold! super fans who were really into it.
Joe Murray – Creator of Rocko’s Modern Life
DEN OF GEEK: Rocko’s Modern Life has to be one of the most underrated Nicktoons of all time. How did a revival happen?
JOE MURRAY: When I first heard about it, I thought “maybe it’s not a good idea.” I felt like we had done a really good job with the seasons that we did. Why mess with it? I said I had to think about it for awhile. It was too abrupt for me to wrap my head around. We were optimistic we could do something and we started kicking around some ideas of how Rocko would be in current times.
Did they come to you with the idea to do this revival as a movie?
The only choices they gave me were doing a long-form project or some shorts. I opted for the long-form project, an hour movie. I thought we could tell a good story and expand what we did before. In the last episode of Rocko, we blasted him off to into space. I thought it would be perfect if we had him come back and land 20 years later.
A long-form piece is a different animal than completing 13 individual episodes. How did you approach it narratively?
It didn’t seem like such a stretch because we were used to telling three-act stories. We just expanded it. I came up with the story that was really relevant to what is going on now. There’s a twist in there [that] will be a surprise when it comes out. There wasn’t really anything they had discussed with me as far as what they wanted to do. They wanted to know if I wanted to refresh the series and the characters. I actually wanted it to be as close to the original as possible.
When we approached the production, we did all the backgrounds the same way, hand-painted. We pulled recurring characters from the old series. It’s pretty close to what it was. It’s the ‘90s show being brought back in 2018. How modern life is now and how the characters would have evolved.
With social media, do you think younger audiences are more mature now than during the original run?
We did all the gags with social media and technology. That was fair game. And of course Rocko is still used to VCRs and he suddenly comes into the 21st century, and it’s all new to him. It’s fun to see someone experiencing all this new technology. Filburt and Heffer embrace it, and Rocko is averse to change. That’s really how the story evolves. It’s all about change.
But also what I found, and maybe this is why the show was gaining popularity over the years, was that we did a lot of weird stuff. We had characters that were really demented. Some of the audience didn’t really catch on to it. It was a little strange to them. Over the years, things have gotten a little weird. Not only in kids entertainment but look at the TV shows kids are watching these days. They really don’t have to make sense, and they’d probably rather it didn’t. I’m feeling like a lot of our non-sequitur weird stuff is pretty much the norm now. We really poured it on. It’s more accepted these days than when we first came out.
So many animated series have taken big risks since, but Rocko, along with Ren and Stimpy, felt like the beginning of that visually and tonally.
It was good that we had Ren and Stimpy pave the way. I think Nickelodeon was more open to doing the weird stuff we wanted to do. We started developing the show right around the time Ren and Stimpy came out. We had just done the pilot for Rocko. I saw that it was on there and what they were doing, and I felt optimistic we could get away with the stuff we wanted to. I came into it thinking I don’t really care if they say no to it. They came to me and said, “Do your independent film work and put it on television.” It was nice that Nickelodeon was open to the risk, because Ren and Stimpy and Rocko didn’t look anything like what was out there. I give a lot of credit to that.
Read and download the full Den of Geek SDCC Special Edition magazine here!