July 20, 2005
Along with Garden State (2004), Napoleon Dynamite (2004) has been championed as an auspicious independent film debut but is it a case of the Emperor having no clothes? Jared Hess’s movie resides somewhere between the cruel alienation of Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) and the eccentric playfulness of Rushmore (1998)
The opening credits, displayed on various plates of food while “We’re Going to Be Friends” by the White Stripes plays, establishes its indie/cool credibility right from the get-go. The film is comprised of a series of vignettes that focuses on the misadventures of Napoleon Dynamite (Heder) and the people that populate his esoteric world. He is a bespectacled oddity with a constantly dazed, open-mouthed expression and ‘70s style afro. He’s an aspiring artist who draws pictures of unicorns during high school class time. Like Max Fischer in Rushmore, Napoleon is a legend in his own mind (although, he lacks Max’s ambitious drive), however he seems closer to Dawn in Welcome to the Dollhouse in the sense that he is kind of pathetic and constantly persecuted by the bigger and stronger kids.
When their grandmother wipes out an ATV on nearby sand dunes, Napoleon and his older brother, Kip (Ruell) are visited by their Uncle Rico (Gries), who doesn’t so much supervise them but get Kip involved in his job of selling plastic Tupperware-like products door-to-door (the 24-piece set with a free model sailboat). Rico too is a legend in his own mind, living in the past (1982 to be exact) and dreaming of old football glories. Napoleon meets Deb (Majorino) at his door selling her custom-made key chains. There is a mutual attraction but she ends up dating new student Pedro (Ramirez). He and Napoleon become friends and they work together as Pedro runs for school president as against Summer (Duff), the stuck-up popular girl of the school.
The filmmakers seem to be fascinated with freakish, white trash culture much like the aforementioned Dollhouse and Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997). It is difficult, at times, to determine if they pity, hate or empathize with the characters in their movie. Are we supposed to laugh at or with these characters?
Jon Heder plays Napoleon like a live-action mix of Beavis and Butthead, albeit slightly smarter and sweeter. You have to admire Napoleon’s refusal to conform. He lives his life on his own terms. Heder fully immerses himself in the role as he completely transforms himself into Napoleon. The beauty of a first-time, low-budget indie like this is that most of the actors are nobodies and so it is much easier to believe that they are their characters.
There is an audio commentary by director/co-writer Jared Hess, producer/editor Jeremy Coon, and actor Jon Heder. Coon talks about how they got the White Stripes song in the movie (this was the first time the band lent their music to a film) while Hess talks about the autobiographical elements in the movie. His younger brother’s behaviour was the inspiration for a lot of Napoleon’s mannerisms. It’s a low-key track with decent observations from all the participants.
There are four deleted scenes with optional commentary by Hess, Heder and Coon. Included is another locker room scene where Napoleon is made fun of again. There are also more scenes between Pedro and Napoleon.
Also included is a still gallery.
“MTV On-Air Promos” include seven ads done specifically for MTV that feature Napoleon, Pedro, Deb and Uncle Rico.
“Peluca” is a short film that Hess shot while a student and is the earliest incarnation of Napoleon Dynamite with Heder. It is basically an ultra-low budget blueprint for the feature-length movie. It is interesting to see the evolution and differences between the two.
“The Wedding of the Century” is a brief look at Kip’s Wedding that reunited the cast months after they made the movie (and can be seen after the end credits of the movie).
Ultimately, Napoleon Dynamite is closer in attitude to Wes Anderson’s movies than Todd Solondz. For all the mean things that happen to Napoleon and his friends they are never that bad. The filmmakers do have affection for these characters and aren’t making fun of them—at worst, there maybe a slightly condescending attitude. This movie would seem more original if you haven’t seen any of Anderson’s films. Regardless, it is still a promising debut. It should be interesting to see what Hess’ next film will be like.