Grade: C

“Hey Arnold! The Movie” commits the cardinal sin in a children’s film: it’s boring. A largely kiddie audience at a recent screening was remarkably quiet throughout; it’s not that they were entranced–they just seemed to be dozing off. There were some scattered chuckles from the adults, but they were half-hearted at best.

“Arnold” is based on an animated Nickelodeon series which has apparently achieved some success. Perhaps in shorter doses the tales of a big-headed, good-hearted kid–who, in the arrangement that’s all too typical in these kiddie shows, has a jive-talking pal and a shrewish female nemesis who secretly adores him–have some modest charm, but stretched over a seventy-plus minute span, the characters soon outwear their welcome. That’s especially the case because the plot constructed for them by Craig Bartlett and Steve Viksten proceeds almost by rote (though there are some very peculiar touches). The lower-class city block where Arnold and his chums reside is about to be demolished in toto by a wicked businessman named Scheck. (Oddly enough, the area seems to be in a time warp–it’s the sort of happily diverse urban region that might have existed in the fifties, complete with colorful ethnics and avuncular oldsters; there’s even a minor villain with an Italian name who seems a stereotypical mobster.) Arnold and his buddy Gerald set out to save the neighborhood from the wrecking ball, though their efforts are derided by the sharp-tongued Helga, who takes every opportunity to berate poor Arnold but underneath her harsh exterior has a warm spot for our hero. Eventually the plot turns into a bland kid spy story as Arnold and Gerald, aided by a shadowy tipster calling himself Deep Voice (har, har) and Bridget, a leather-clad girl with lots of espionage equipment, infiltrate Scheck’s corporate headquarters to track down a document which, in the telling of the city coroner who happens also to be the local history buff, will prove that Arnold’s block once received national landmark designation and, thereby, security from demolition. There are other characters floating around the periphery, notably Arnold’s guardians, his cantankerous and, as it turns out, rather radical grandparents; a jovial local butcher; Helga’s dad, who’s in league with Scheck, intending to open a beeper emporium amidst the debris; and a bus driver with a metal leg who’s a major participant in a big chase in the last act, which turns into sort of a deranged recycling of “Speed.”

The preceding precis, however, makes “Hey Arnold!” sound far more complicated and exciting than it actually is. In reality the story is simple enough for a five-year old to follow without strain, and as directed by one Tuck Tucker, it moves along lethargically–even the action sequences are slack. It certainly doesn’t help that the animation is decidedly rudimentary. The fact that there’s no attempt at realism isn’t a problem, of course, but the wavy, exaggerated style seems little more than a crude copy of the “Rugrats” design which worked so well for Nickelodeon in the past. The voice performers from the series do their jobs efficiently, and they’re joined by some imposing names: Paul Sorvino as Scheck, Christopher Lloyd as the creepy coroner, and Jennifer Jason Lee as Bridget. All three are good enough, with Sorvino’s resonant deep tenor coming off best; but their contributions are hardly spectacular.

All told, among recent animated offerings “Hey Arnold” comes across as a wan, tepid effort that would be more at home on cable or a video shelf. It does have one point of interest, though. In his everyday garb, Arnold wears not just an undersized cap but what looks curiously like a skirt. Actually, it’s supposed to be the bottom of his orange shirt, which hangs down from his sweater because it’s not properly tucked into his trousers. But imagining that it’s a skirt makes him a much more interesting character than the bland, tedious fellow he actually is.