RELEASE DATE: 11/11/2004
RUN TIME: 1HR 36MIN
I must admit, ten years ago when Jarred Hess’ debut film ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ was released, I just didn’t get the appeal. It was my first year at uni, and all my friends would quote the film ad nauseum, to the point that I knew almost every moment of it before I’d seen it. When I finally did sit down to watch it, I just didn’t get it. The humour was dumb, the characters were unlikable, the film itself was so unenthusiastic it might as well have been asleep. I look at this tall weirdo and thought, "What am I not getting? What is there to get? What the hell is going on with this movie?" I quietly filed it away with films like ‘Garden State’, ‘Juno’ and ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ as ones that I just accepted everyone else was going to love and I wasn’t.
So when the opportunity came to revisit the film to celebrate its 10th anniversary, I thought, "Why not? Maybe I’ll finally work out what everyone was going on about." Well, maybe thanks to a decade of distance, or the fact that I haven’t had people continually asking me if the chickens have large talons of late, I found Napoleon and his mismatched friends and family not as I left them. Sure, they were all still totally apathetic towards everything and everyone around them, but to my great surprise, the charm I always felt was lacking was there after all.
For the uninitiated, Napoleon (Jon Heder) is a lanky teenage geek living with his grandmother, his older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) and their alpaca Tina. He attends the local high school in Preston, where he is routinely beaten up by the jocks and draws mythical creatures in his school books. He makes friends with new student Pedro (Efren Ramirez) who has a moustache, and begins to form... something... with loner Deb (Tina Majorino) who takes glamour shots in her spare time. Napoleon's world is thrown into chaos when his grandmother has a dirt biking accident and their Uncle Rico (John Gries) comes to live with them, disrupting Napoleon’s routine and taking advantage of Kip’s desire to appear the coolest person imaginable (he isn’t). Throw in student elections, a school dance, Kip’s internet girlfriend Lafawnduh, an endless supply of steaks, 24-piece tupperware sets, sign language, epic dance numbers and a bum-bag full of tater tots, and you have a barely acceptable snapshot of the scope of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’.
The film doesn’t have the strongest of narrative arches, instead moving between episodic skits that might betray its initial conception. Ten years ago, I assumed that this meant it wasn’t really about anything, but revisiting it, I’ve realised how wrong I was. There is something going on at the heart of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’, something that makes the disparate and seemingly meaningless pieces make some sort of sense. Preston is a town populated by the inert, people with no desire to move on or better themselves. It’s a charming little black hole from which no-one can properly escape. What made it tick for me was paying attention to the bullies that terrorise Napoleon (not that Napoleon seems to care, content in the knowledge that he’s so cool he doesn’t have to worry). While most of Napoleon’s classmates look like average American teenagers, these guys don’t. In fact, they look like they’re edging into their early twenties. They sit perfectly next to Uncle Rico, who monologues endlessly about his failed sports career (ruined at the hands of others) and plans to buy a time machine to set things right. The bullies look old because they are - they’ve never graduated or passed high school, and they’re content to rule their little kingdom, the same way Rico establishes his within Napoleon and Kip’s little world. Even the girls at school seem content to just... be at school. So when Pedro and Deb turn up, they introduce Napoleon to the concept of wanting more and better, Deb saving up to go to college and Pedro wanting to be school president. By the end of the film, Napoleon doesn’t seem inclined to chose his own dreams outside of owning a good set of num-chucks, but there’s a twinkle in his eye that suggests he might, while his brother emerges from the shadow of Uncle Rico to find happiness with his internet girlfriend he hasn’t met yet.
There is something going on at the heart of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’, something that makes the disparate and seemingly meaningless pieces make some sort of sense.
This probably seems a bit analytical for a film whose greatest attribute is just being funny, but it’s the sweet ideas behind the humour that make it work, and give the film its charm. The characters may be apathetic, but the filmmaking is not, Hess imbuing it with so much lo-fi magic and a vested interest in these people. We learn to care about Napoleon (much to his disgust, probably) because the camera and the filmmakers care, and that elevates it from a series of amusing scenarios into a emotionally satisfying work of comedy. It also helps that Jon Heder is kind of remarkable as Napoleon. The guy barely makes a facial expression and just sounds indignant for an hour and a half, but Heder does it with such commitment and conviction, and every detail has been thought through, from his preposterous run to his constant heavy breathing to his utterly tensionless jaw. The film itself is a gorgeous bit of filmmaking, but without Heder, it wouldn’t have its tremendous appeal.
And this appeal has essentially changed, not just comedy, but cinema. In the wake of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’, the lo-fi quaint suburban teen comedy came into being, imitated by the likes of ‘Juno’ and ‘Scott Pilgrim vs The World’, that sense of apathy itself becoming a great force for comedy. It hasn’t always worked as well as it did back in 2004, but it’s a refreshing difference from Will Ferrell’s incessant screaming. Suddenly, the geek was a force for comedy and a relatable force at that, and while their styles are nowhere near each other, don’t tell me that ‘The Big Bang Theory’ isn’t part of its legacy. Hell, Maurice from ‘The IT Crowd’ is basically Napoleon with a wider vocabulary and better dress sense.
So after thinking it wasn’t my cup of tea this past decade, I’m pleasantly surprised to find myself a convert. Not every film deserves to have its tenth birthday celebrated with a stupidly long review/essay thing, but ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ probably does. It’s a modern comedy classic filled with tremendous heart and its own brand of very unique humour. It’s kind of the great Wes Anderson film that Wes Anderson never made. So let me extend a heartfelt ‘Happy Tenth Birthday’ to everyone’s favourite lanky geek Napoleon Dynamite. To which he’d probably tell me to shut up, yell "Gosh!" and ask "Who’s the only one here you knows secret Ninja moves from the government?"
'Napoleon Dynamite' is available to buy now on iTunes. You obviously couldn't do that when Napoleon was a teenager, but we're sure he would have approved of the idea.