Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Napoleon Dynamite was an audience smash at the 2004 Sundance film festival. Fox Searchlight jumped at the chance to distribute a film written and directed by Mormons, starring a Mormon, and set in film-friendly Idaho. MTV Films, the people behind alternating good movies (Better Luck Tomorrow, Election) and atrocious movies (Crossroads, Joe’s Apartment, an upcoming film actually based on Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8r Boi” song), came aboard and basically said, Look, we really like the movie, and we want to help bring it to a wider, MTV-influenced audience. And thus, Napoleon Dynamite seems to have become the summer biggest must-see film for sk8r bois and sk8r grrrls nationwide.
Napoleon Dynamite (John Heder) is an Idaho teen that marches to the beat of his own drum. He lives with his Dune Buggy riding grandmother and 31-year-old brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who surfs the Web talking to women. When their grandma gets injured, Uncle Rico (John Gries), stuck in the 80s in fashion and mind, takes up shop in the Dynamite home and coerces Kip to hustle money from neighbors. Meanwhile, Napoleon befriends Deb (Tina Majorino), an otherwise normal girl with a sideways ponytail, and Pedro (Efren Ramirez, who was actually in Kazaam!), the new kid at school. Together, they try and get Pedro elected to class president, but standing in their way is the mighty shadow of Summer (Haylie Duff), the most popular girl in school. Oh yeah, there’s also a llama.
First time director, Jared Hess, and first time cinematographer, Munn Powell, orchestrate shots very statically, with little, simple camera movements and many centered angles. The style is reminiscent of the films of Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse), or, more precisely, Wes Anderson. This shooting technique makes the characters stand out even more, almost popping out at you behind flat backgrounds like some Magic Eye picture. Hess easily communicates the tedium of Idaho with his direction. Can anyone name any other film that takes place entirely in Idaho? (Please note that My Own Private Idaho takes place in Portland and Seattle, mostly).
The star of the show is, of course, Heder. His wickedly funny deadpan delivery helps to create a truly memorable character. He achieves a geek Zen and, judging from the incredible amount of kids under-14 that appeared both times I saw this film, is most likely the greatest film realization of a dork. Its grand dork cinema, a genre long ignored after the collapse of the mighty Revenge of the Nerds franchise. So while Napoleon isn’t exactly relatable (llamas, Dune Buggy grannies and all), the right audience will see reflections of themselves. You’ll be quoting from Napoleon all summer.
Napoleon Dynamite is going to be an acquired taste. Its filled to the brim with stone-faced absurdities and doesn’t let up. If you’re not pulled in with the bizarre antics of bizarre characters in the first 10 minutes, then you may as well leave because otherwise it will feel like the film is wearing you down with its indie weirdness. Napoleon Dynamite seems to skirt the sublimely skewed world of Wes Anderson, but Napoleon lacks the deep humanity of Andersons films. What the audience is left with is a sugary, sticky icing but little substance beneath, and, depending on your sweet tooth, it’ll either be overpowering and a colossal disappointment or it’ll taste just right for the occasion. Alright, I’m done with baking analogies for the year.
Some will find a certain condescension against the characters. Napoleon Dynamite doesn’t outright look down upon its characters, but it does give them enough room to paint themselves fools. Uncle Rico is really the films antagonist, yet hes too buffoonish to be threatening. It’s a fine line for a film to have condescension toward its characters, but Napoleon Dynamite ultimately leaves with a bemused appreciation for its characters. The film presents the good characters as unusual but lovable and ready for growth (Kip, Pedro, and of course Napoleon), but the bad characters (Summer, Uncle Rico) aren’t demonized. In essence, Napoleon Dynamite is the best example of a film that makes an audience laugh at and with its characters simultaneously.
Napoleon Dynamite is assuredly an odd duck. Some will cheer; others will want to head out the door after a few minutes. It’s hard to say which reaction an individual will have. If you have a geek-enriched history populated with unicorns, Dungeons and Dragons, and/or social ostracism, then you may be more inclined to admire Napoleon Dynamite. I laughed out loud throughout the film and found it to be an enjoyable diversion, and I went the whole review without one Jimmy Walker reference.
Nate’s Grade: B