On August 11, 1991, television changed forever.
The cable channel Nickelodeon, best known for being the first network for kids, had always wanted to have their own original cartoon lineup; after all, cartoons are the most important staple of children’s programming. But because the cable channel was still in its humble beginnings and low on funds, they were only able to acquire shows from other countries and rerun oldies. But, on that fateful day, the channel finally bit the bullet and launched their own original cartoon lineup, under the iconic banner “Nicktoons.”
In the past, particularly in the ‘80s, most kid cartoons weren’t creator-driven, but rather executive-driven. Pretty much nine out of every ten cartoons were nothing more than a promotion for something else, like a movie, a comic book and, most notably, toy lines. Companies like Hasbro and Mattel saw great potential in the medium of animation to promote their toy lineups, which gave birth to shows like “The Transformers,” “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” and even “Rubik, the Amazing Cube.” I’m not kidding, there was a show based on the Rubik’s Cube. And most of the time, these shows featured weak writing and animation, making them entertaining enough to children, but dull for everyone else, and treated animation as more of a commercial for toys rather than a quality TV program.
Nickelodeon, on the other hand, completely rejected the idea of making cartoons just to sell something. They knew top-notch writing and quality animation was a necessity to keep both kids and their parents happy, so Nick looked at animators that had creative visions and ideas all their own.
The first three Nicktoons, “Doug,” “Rugrats” and “Ren and Stimpy,” were fresh and cutting-edge, unlike anything else airing on kids’ TV, and helped make the Nicktoons brand an instant hit. The success of their original Nicktoons led to even more successful shows throughout the years, like “Rocko’s Modern Life,” “Hey Arnold!,” “The Fairly OddParents,” “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” “The Loud House” and, of course, “SpongeBob SquarePants.” The Nicktoons also helped in the rapid spread of more creator-driven cartoons on other competing kid channels and blocks, like Cartoon Network and Kids’ WB.
Even today, many of Nickelodeon’s animated series are still fondly remembered and appreciated by the audiences who had watched them years ago, with two notable examples being the wacky “Rocko’s Modern Life” and the laid-back “Hey Arnold!” Although both shows were completely different in tone and style, both managed to successfully tackle the hardest, but most important task when creating something for kids—being appealing to both kids and adults.
“Rocko” has plenty of wacky shenanigans and goofy, surreal humor to make kids happy, but the show also sprinkles in a lot of elements that arguably make the show funnier to adults. While much of the show’s adult appeal comes down to its humor, with many gags being so raunchy that I’m shocked Nickelodeon aired it, the stories were arguably what really sold the show.
The premise of an Australian wallaby immigrating to America and going through wacky dilemmas regarding mundane parts of American life is pretty provocative, and helped give the show a lot of its story ideas. With memorable and hilarious stories involving seemingly simple, but relatable ideas, like garbage day, credit cards and trying to buy a new TV, the show took seemingly simple, but relatable, inconveniences from modern-day life and created zany and bizarre plots that are funny whether you’re young or old. Add the show’s wacky tone to the mixture, and it’s obvious why it had garnered a following throughout the years.
“Hey Arnold” was less goofy and more down-to-earth, focusing on the lives of a young kid named Arnold and his group of friends living in the city and going through many of the issues kids go through even today. From the more juvenile (trying to have the greatest snow day ever) to the more serious (a dysfunctional family), “Hey Arnold” looked at elementary school life, warts and all, in a likable way that related to kids and even adults.
But what really made the show work were the characters. “Hey Arnold” boasted a massive ensemble, with every supporting character being three-dimensional and compelling. However, the star of the show was Arnold himself, a character that really gave the show its memorability. As both the voice of reason and the straight man, he helped give the show both its heart and its unique identity, making the show still memorable even twenty years later.
Given society’s obsession with bringing anything and everything nostalgic back, it was almost inevitable that Nick would dive into their archives and bring a few of their old programs back for a new generation. After all, many of the kids who watched the shows in their original run are now starting families of their own, so why not attract both the original crowd and their offspring to create cross generational appeal? As a result, Nickelodeon decided to take two of their most popular shows from the ‘90s, and produce TV movies on them; “Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie,” airs this Thanksgiving, and “Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling,” airs next year.
But, one lingering fear was in the back of the minds of so many fans: Will they be any good? Even if they do have many of the same cast and crew members back, can the magic be recaptured again, or will it just be a cheap cash grab? After all, Cartoon Network attempted to reboot shows like “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Ben 10” for a new generation and yielded poor results. So, will Nickelodeon fall into the same trap?
Thankfully, at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, fans got to see the first footage of the reboots and it seems those worries were all for naught, as Nick thankfully has the right idea on how to bring back and modernize an old show for new audiences.
“Hey Arnold’s” movie has quite the interesting history. Originally, “The Jungle Movie” was supposed to be a theatrical release that answered the questions many audience members had about what happened to Arnold’s parents, who were ostensibly lost deep in a South American jungle. However, when Nick canceled the show in 2004, “The Jungle Movie” stopped production, meaning fans never got to see what happened…until now.
The footage revealed sadly doesn’t show anything from the actual jungle, nor anything about Arnold’s parents, but instead a montage, with the supporting cast recounting past events, calling back to episodes like “The Pigeon Man” and “The Stoop Kid.” Within said brief montage, as every character goes on about how Arnold helped them become better people, the scene reflects the fact that the show’s creator, Craig Bartlett, understands what makes Arnold such a great character.
Arnold is one of the rare lead characters that is the straight man. Typically, the main character in cartoons is usually an oddball or a comic, in order to make the show more appealing to its target audience of kids. “Hey Arnold” doesn’t do that, and instead focuses on a dependable, honest peacekeeper, who not only acts as the glue holding all the characters together, but also serves as a great role model for the kids watching, asking them to be accepting, understanding and teaching them to do the right thing. And while audiences still don’t know much about what happened to Arnold’s parents nor anything about what the jungle entails, it’s still nice to see an important part of the show’s spirit is still intact.
As for “Rocko’s” movie “Static Cling,” the film has not just updated the visuals, but also updated the time period. Since the original run focused about surviving the modern life of the ’90s, “Static Cling” involves Rocko and his friends surviving the modern life of today, and the two-and-a-half minutes of footage released already shows “Static Cling” is living up to the incredible potential. From jabs at “Starbucks” and “iPhones” to poking fun at the recent boom of gritty superhero movies and food trucks, audiences will see something the show has been known for pulling off expertly. Creator Joe Murray has mentioned in an interview the special will touch on people’s reliance on modern technology, meaning “Rocko” seems to have not lost its understanding of why it was such a wonderful show, even after more than twenty years since the last episode aired.
Even with these two movies, Nick still isn’t done giving its old fans updates of their favorites. Just last April, they announced that they are currently in development for a TV movie based on their cult classic series “Invader Zim,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if television films based on “Rugrats” or “Jimmy Neutron” will be coming on the air soon. There are even rumors of a theatrical release of a massive Nicktoons crossover, featuring almost all of their old catalog from the ‘90s.
Nickelodeon has a very proud history when it comes to their cartoons, as they were responsible for changing the medium and creating some of the funniest, smartest children’s shows ever made. And Nickelodeon, as shown through their upcoming movies, is well aware of their impact on the minds of so many children who are now all grown up.
They know the cartoons they made have shaped the minds of many people and have influenced the medium of television animation as a whole. So, by not only celebrating their old successes, but also introducing them to a new generation, it’s apparent that the first network for kids has a clear understanding of why they have such an iconic legacy. It’ll certainly be exciting to see some old friends one more time, and the next couple of years simply can’t come soon enough.