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Movie Review

Hey! It's 'Arnold' Without the Charm


For all the Nickelodeon cable network animated shows that get the big-screen treatment, there seems to be a requirement to enlarge not only the characters' physical dimensions, but also the story lines and landscapes. Pumping such muscle enhancers into these quirky little TV shows carries great risk, although the process worked OK for both "Rugrats" movies. Much of the charm of the "Hey Arnold!" TV series comes from its fanciful, gently whimsical treatment of down-to-earth matters, from peer pressure to class envy, from political integrity to good manners and from cultural bonding to unrequited love. The latter, as regular viewers will tell you in a heartbeat, is manifested in Helga (voiced by Francesca Marie Smith), a brash barracuda-in-training who secretly pines for the series' dauntless, football-headed hero, Arnold (Spencer Klein).

Playground gossip has it that Helga, who shields her infatuation with a hostile smoke screen, finally confesses her love for Arnold, who neither knows nor cares how she really feels. If that were all that "Hey Arnold! The Movie" was about, then one could praise its makers for maintaining the series' hip, cozy milieu.

But once again, someone felt it necessary to raise the stakes and the noise level of a TV show to justify its move to the movies.

Arnold's chockablock, blue-collar neighborhood of ethnic restaurants, makeshift playgrounds and eccentric geezers has been targeted by a ruthless developer named Scheck (Paul Sorvino) for razing and transformation into yet another blah-di-dah shopping mall.

Arnold rallies his kooky grandparents (Dan Castellaneta, Tress MacNeille), best friend Gerald (Jamil Smith) and other neighborhood stalwarts to do quixotic battle against the well-heeled, well-connected Scheck. It's not enough--not even with Helga providing covert action on their behalf. They need fancy spy gadgets from a righteous mercenary babe named Bridget (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and some "Speed"-style chases along a perilous highway.

The movie references here, as in the "Rugrats" movies, are cunning. The lines are reasonably clever and neatly delivered. The cause is just. But there's something off-kilter about the mix. Maybe it's because the animation retains its TV flatness while the story's texture is gratuitously bulked up. If its makers had somehow expanded the animation while stripping the concept to dry, witty elementals, "Hey Arnold! The Movie" could have been much more than just another TV knockoff.

MPAA rating: PG, for some thematic elements. Times guidelines: OK for older preschoolers.

Gene Seymour is a film critic for Newsday, a Tribune company.

'Hey Arnold! The Movie'

Spencer Klein...Arnold

Jennifer Jason Leigh...Bridget

Christopher Lloyd...City Coroner

Paul Sorvino...Scheck

Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies present a Snee-Oosh production, in association with Nickelodeon Animation Studios, released by Paramount. Director Tuck Tucker. Producers Craig Bartlett, Albie Hecht. Executive producers Marjorie Cohn, Julia Pistor. Screenplay by Craig Bartlett & Steve Viksten, based on characters created by Craig Bartlett. Animation directors Christine Kolosov, Frank Weiss. Editor Christopher Hink. Music Jim Lang. Production designer Guy Vasilovich. Art director Christine Kolosov. Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes.

In general release.

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