For this article “A Bomb in the Lasagna” writer, Will Standish, and “Saturday Morning Cartoons” writer, Aubrey Fox, will be co-writing an article on what we believe should be considered a Christmas classic – the Hey Arnold! Christmas special “Arnold’s Christmas”. Merry Christmas and enjoy!
Every year, I have to brace myself before watching “Arnold’s Christmas”. This is because, out of the wide array of movies and tv specials I consume in the days leading up to Christmas, nothing is nearly as adept at making me cry as is this first season episode of the seminal 90s cartoon Hey Arnold. While there’s no shortage of weepy Christmas entertainment or fun vintage Nickelodeon holiday episodes, “Arnold’s Christmas”, released 20 years ago this month, stands alone amongst its 90s Nickelodeon peers. Taking considerable risk for the first season of a children’s cartoon in earnestly depicting the sadder side of the holidays and, in its boldest move, the lingering tragedies of the Vietnam War, “Arnold’s Christmas” is a beautifully animated and written Christmas special deserving of a spot in the Christmas Canon among the likes of A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Die Hard.
What separates “Arnold’s Christmas” and in fact the rest of Hey Arnold from the rest of its Nicktoons brood is its refusal to talk down to its audience. Complex life lessons are as much a hallmark of the series as are playground urban legends and Helga punching the lights out of the boundary-disrespecting Brainy. Episodes such as “Pigeon Man” don’t pull their punches in depicting the way social outsiders are unfairly feared and mistreated, and the same emotional honesty permeates “Arnold’s Christmas”. The episode follows Arnold (and, unknown to him, his bully and secret admirer Helga) as they attempt to reunite Mr. Hyunh, a resident of Arnold’s boarding house, with the daughter he was separated from during the Vietnam war in time for Christmas. For a children’s show in its first season that is…certainly heavy material. Though the war is never mentioned by name, it is animated with powerful, unmistakable –and incredibly emotional– imagery.
Having a low budget, and being two decades old, “Hey Arnold” doesn’t have the highest quality of animation by today’s standards, yet the show knew how to utilize its simple style to its fullest. Through clever use of color choice, camera angles, and the set-up of certain scenes, it managed to tell its story in a clear and often artistic fashion. During the sequence where Mr. Hyunh is telling his story, the scene switches from the show’s usual bright and multi-colored palette to a monochromatic style as he starts talking about a war befalling his country. As the scene continues, we see soldier’s silhouettes pass across his daughter’s crib; a chilling image for such simple animation. As the flashback comes to a close we are given an array of many different angles and camera pans as Mr. Hyunh runs holding his daughter in a crowd of people towards helicopters manned by soldiers – an unmistakable reference to the evacuation after the Fall of Saigon. Then the movement slows down as Mr. Hyunh makes his decision to allow the soldiers to take his daughter to safety as he is left behind. In the span of less than two minutes, the special managed to tackle a fearful moment in history and threw us right in the middle of it.
The faster paced moments, with more artistic color palettes and clever editing, give way to slower, quieter ones. Another thing that “Hey Arnold!” knew how to do well, was to stay silent. It knew when to drop the dialogue and just allow the viewers to watch and see what was going on, allowing its visuals to tell the story. Whether it was a frame of Mr. Hyunh staring silently at the fireplace, or Helga getting an idea for a present for Arnold after seeing the Christmas list, the show knew how to tell us what was going on with just a single look. One of my favorite still-moments of this special is the end of the scene where Helga is trying to convince a man to help her find Mr. Hyunh’s daughter for Arnold. The scene fades out with neither of them looking at each other, yet we see both of their faces; the taxi is there ready to take the man away, and it ends leaving the audience wondering.
What’s unique about “Arnold’s Christmas” is how it eschews traditional Christmas imagery, or rather shifts the focus away from it. For the life of me, I can’t think of another Nicktoon from this era with a Christmas special that doesn’t even mention Santa once. “Arnold’s Christmas” concerns itself less with the particulars of the holidays and more with the emotions that surround it; particularly sadness and joy. “Arnold’s Christmas” focuses on loners on the outside of the holiday, and a sense of melancholy permeates the episode. While Arnold more or less acts as the living embodiment of Christmas spirit, the main players in this episode –Helga, Mr. Hyunh, and Mr. Bailey* are on the margins of the holiday literally and figuratively. Each is set apart from the holiday merrymaking –Mr. Huynh at the fireplace as the boarders celebrate, Mr. Bailey alone at his desk during an office party, Helga sulking as her family sings carols– and it’s through Arnold’s kindness, and kind acts of their own, that they find a sense of happiness.
Christmas spirit, posits the episode, is the joy in acting kindly and selflessly, and through these acts people are brought together. One selfless act, a father ensuring his daughter’s safety in another country, inspires another, and each act brings these people into a community. The big speech, the “Linus moment” of the episode, so to speak, is remarkable in what it’s not: namely a lecture. No platitudes on the true meaning of the holiday are invoked. Helga finds she can’t coax a tired bureaucrat into working overtime to find a stranger on Christmas eve with her usual bluster and stubbornness; she appeals to him to consider the impact of his kindness on a boy he’s only just met. His response, like so much of the episode, is subtle and nuanced. Much like in the flashback to Vietnam, more is shown than spoken. The spirit of Christmas isn’t in a flashy proclamation or speech, but in a 9 year old girl’s plea and in a tired man’s decision to act selflessly.
The tragedy and emotional tension that the special portrays ends in a cathartic release of pure joy. Just as Arnold is about to tell Mr. Hyunh that he couldn’t get him a Christmas present, they turn around to see his daughter standing there in the apartment common room. The reunion of father and child is just as beautiful and touching as you would expect. But what is unexpected is how much the final scene and the final line matches that same joyful moment. With Arnold wondering how Mr. Hyunh’s daughter managed to be found and with Gerald chalking it up to a “Christmas miracle”, we are left with Helga looking into the boarding house window happily whispering “Merry Christmas, Arnold”. It is never revealed to the others that it was Helga who was the final catalyst that made that “miracle” happen, and yet it is probably one of the few moments in the show as a whole that we see Helga with such a look of pure happiness. Through its flawless storytelling, “Arnold’s Christmas” is able to leave us with that same feeling of Christmas spirit by seeing how one girl gains the same amount of joy as the people she helped bring together through a quiet, yet selfless act.
*An It’s a Wonderful Life reference I am only now just getting.