My Favorite Movies – Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

7 Oct

By Tanner Smith

Napoleon Dynamite is very much an indie filmmaker’s dream. Talk about the little indie film that could! Here was a little movie made in a Mormon community by people who just wanted to make a nice, down-to-earth, funny movie…who I doubt would have even suspected that it would become the pop-culture phenomenon that it was!!

No joke–this movie was EVERYWHERE for a while! Everybody was quoting it, they were telling all their friends about it, and there was a TON of merchandise sold that was based on it–“Vote For Pedro” t-shirts, Napoleon’s PE t-shirt, flipbooks of Napoleon’s finale dance, quote books, and even the shooting script was available in bookstores!

How did this happen?? When I was 12 years old at the time of the movie’s release, I only heard about it because everyone in school was talking about it, and so I jumped on the bandwagon. But what did THEY get out of it? What about “Napoleon Dynamite” spoke to them in such a way?

My guess is because it’s like nothing they ever saw before. It’s a story about a high-schooler, which we’ve seen many times before, but this one was so different (and so funny) in the way this particular high-schooler and his friends and family were portrayed. We can laugh at them, quote them, even sort of identify with them in ways we don’t want to admit.

Napoleon (played memorably by Jon Heder) is not very likable. He’s a sadsack high-school student who would make a nerd look cool. (I think that’s how the late Roger Ebert described him.) He can’t even get in with the nerd crowd because he can be pretty obnoxious when he’s not unbelievably awkward. He’s not one of those “movie outcasts” that everyone picks on because he’s different–he’s an outcast because he deserves to be! There’s something very sad and yet so very funny about that idea alone. And that’s why I love this movie. As much as I love a good coming-of-age teen comedy/drama, there’s something very refreshing about this sort of anti-coming-of-age teen comedy/drama, in that it takes most conventions we’re familiar with and tones them way down to the point where we get laughs from the mere lack of cliche.

There’s also a bunch of colorful supporting characters, such as Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) who constantly dreams of living in the past (I love how he keeps checking his biceps when he has his arms crossed), Napoleon’s brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) who at least has a better chance at finding love than Napoleon does, Napoleon’s buddy Pedro (Efren Ramirez) who is just as emotionless as Napoleon, and the ultra-shy Deb (Tina Majorino) who at least isn’t afraid to talk with her mouth full. Oh and there’s also the very quotable, macho Rex (Diedrich Bader), who has a couple scenes as a would-be martial-arts instructor…I don’t know WHY he’s in this movie, but I’m glad he is.

There’s hardly a story in “Napoleon Dynamite”–it just rides on the characters themselves, which helps make scenes memorable. Who doesn’t remember what a liger is because of this movie? Who doesn’t remember Napoleon complimenting Deb’s poofy sleeves on her dress at a school dance? Who doesn’t remember Deb’s method of taking glamour shots? Who doesn’t remember how Napoleon wins Pedro the election for class president? And so on. It’s mainly an episodic slice-of-life where we spend an hour-and-a-half spending time with odd, quirky characters. And that’s why I think a whole lot of people latched onto it back then.

My favorite scene: the dance scene! We’ve spent pretty much the entire movie watching this sadsack loser with no energy, and now here we are seeing him present a TON of energy! It’s a wonderful payoff.

“Napoleon Dynamite” doesn’t force us to hate these characters, because it doesn’t necessarily mock or even hate them. It shows its heart near the end and we can appreciate any hint of redemption these people might have in their lives. The film isn’t about that, mind you, but it does show a bit of hope seeping underneath the surface.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: