In 10 Words or Less
The misadventures of one of film's most unlikable heroes
Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is a geek's geek, a lanky, four-eyed, awkward, carrot-topped mess in moon boots and weightlifting pants. His life is hell, living with a crazy llama-owning grandmother (Sandy Martin) and his 32-year-old effeminate, computer-addicted older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell). And it only gets worse when grandma gets hospitalized, leading his get-rich-quick Uncle Rico (Jon Gries, Real Genius) to move in. Kip quickly falls under Rico's sway, while Napoleon gets on his bad side. There's a school election, a long-distance cyber-relaionship and the courtship of Summer (Haylie Duff) in there too, but that's generally the story.
There's a plot at work here, but it's not nearly as interesting as the bits of character study seen as Napoleon interacts with the people around him, namely his only friend, Pedro (Efren Ramirez), the school's only Mexican student, and Deb (Tina Majorino, Corrina, Corrina), an adorable, sweet girl with a slightly off-kilter mindset. Napoleon doesn't exactly get the concept of being an outsider (despite admitting he doesn't have great skills (like bowhunting and computer hacking)), so he chases girls outside his reach, only to get shutdown again and again. His every bit of dialogue leaves him out of breath, not because he puts so much into it, but because he doesn't seem to have much in the way of energy. Half the film is spent with his eyes closed, as he's unable to muster even that much effort. If I was faced with his life, I guess I'd be exasperated as well.
If Napoleon wasn't unlikable enough, his brother Kip and uncle Rico are around to meet the "ick" quota. Hooked on chat rooms, Kip is a weak and useless man, who doesn't seem to have a single bit of motivation in his body. Every word he said made me want to injure him physically. Rico isn't much better, a disturbing man living his life back in 1982, when he still had the promise of becoming a professional football player. Though in many ways Idaho resembles that very year, he is so trapped in the past he even looks into the possibility of time travel. Yet, despite his terrible personality, he is able to charm the women of Idaho into buying his crap.
I don't know if it was a choice by writer/director Jared Hess, but not a single woman in this movie can make a good decision when it comes to men. Every single one has awful judgment, but then, it's not like there are many choices. Outside of Pedro, who has some major issues of his own, you'd have a hard time finding someone in this film you'd let date your daughter. One feels bad for Deb, who deserves better choices, but even her head is in the clouds. And when Kip's cyber-dating pays off, one wonders what kind of reality this movie operates in. To say any more about that part of the film would do a disservice to first-time viewers of this film, as it's one of the more bizarre and surprising bits, one not ruined by the trailer.
In many ways, Napoleon Dynamite is a teen version of a Wes Anderson film, with stilted and original composition, quirky, flawed characters and a very tight soundtrack. But whereas Anderson creates heroes that an audience can embrace and laugh with, Hess has developed a film built around a character no one would want to even speak to. That doesn't mean one can't enjoy the experience of laughing at a cast that evokes more pity than sympathy. The film is original and interesting enough that you don't need to like the characters to like the movie.
Unfortunately, Fox has released Napoleon Dynamite as a two-sided DVD, with the full-screen version on one side and a widescreen transfer on the other. There are very few things in this world that annoy me quite like two-sided discs. Anamorphic widescreen menus are animated with footage and music from the film, and present scene selections, language (English 5.1 and Spanish Dolby Surround) and subtitle (English, Spanish, French) options and special features, which, aside from the commentary, are different from one side to the other, another annoying aspect of this DVD. Some of these menus are inspired, following the lead of the main titles; the language menu especially, which is the liner of a blank cassette tape. The disc is packaged in a keepcase, but there's no danged insert.
The video looks excellent, looking nothing like an independent effort. Both widescreen and full-screen versions are clean and crisp, with vivid colors and great skintones. This movie has some wild color schemes, especially the school lockers, and the DVD presents them beautifully, right down to the bright blue skies of Idaho. There are a lot of shadows due to a natural lighting technique, and they look wonderful. The audio is presented in 5.1 Surround, but don't expect a tremendous amount of activity. Music and crowd noise are shunted to the sides and rear speakers, but most of the film is dialogue driven.
A commentary with Heder, director Jared Hess and producer Jeremy Coon is the main bonus feature, and it's found on both sides of the disc. The three talk mostly about the inspirations behind the movie, what it was like making it and their memories of the cast and crew. Much like Napoleon, the trio speaks in a very low-key manner for most of the track, forcing me to pump up the volume to even hear them. There's some filling-in done on story points that were left unexplained, but for the most part, this is a chance for the trio to talk about their film and life experiences. That didn't make for a very involving commentary, but for fans of the movie, it's a chance to find out more about the flick. What was interesting to me was how much of the movie was from Hess' life, rather than made-up. Living in Idaho is apparently like one of Hunter S. Thompson's drug trips (in other words, highly inspirational.) Oddly, the commentary ends before the tacked-on new ending, which robs viewers of an explanation of why the final scene was made.
On the full-screen side, is an assortment of extras (all of which are in full-screen), more than what is found on the widescreen side. Before he filled the role of Napoleon Dynamite, Heder was the equally geeky Seth, the star of Hess' nine-minute 2003 short film Peluca, which was developed into the feature-length version. The short is unbelievably grainy, thanks to overexposure of the negative by Hess, but it doesn't really interfere with watching the movie. Peluca focuses on Seth and his two friends at school, who were combined to become Pedro in Napoleon Dynamite. Nearly every concept in this short was incorporated into the film, though one ended up left on the cutting-room floor. Once again, Hess, Heder and Coon provide a commentary track, discussing the making of the short, with some insight into low-budget filmmaking.
"The Wedding of the Century" gives a look behind the scenes of the making of the new ending to Napoleon Dynamite, with a couple of on-set cast interviews thrown in for good measure. This is a must-watch, thanks to some behind-the-scene footage of Napoleon that is truly unforgettable and even shocking. In addition to promos for "Arrested Development" and the Napoleon Dynamite soundtrack, a selection of seven MTV commercials for the film are included, which can be watched separately or using a "play all" feature. Some are cute, but they mainly rehash the ideas in the movie. On the widescreen side, There are four deleted scenes, which can be viewed with our without commentary by Heder, Hess and Coon, and with a "play all" option, as well as a stills gallery. The deleted scenes, presented in letterboxed full-screen with time codes, are no big deal, but again, for fans they are worth a look, as they include one lifted directly from Peluca and one set during a kickball scene that gave Napoleon more backbone than he really should have had. After reviewing Billy Madison and this film, it seems the quickest way to get a scene cut is to add a kickball scene.
The Bottom Line
I can imagine that there are plenty of people who will have trouble getting through this movie. My friend Rich sat and watched with me for a while before covering his head with a blanket to avoid feeling any worse than he already did for Napoleon. Then he passed out from a lack of air and too much heat under the blanket. I watched the rest, and that was a struggle as well. It's not because it wasn't interesting, or not funny or not well-made. It's simply the result of a main character that's genuinely unlikable. His exasperated delivery and overall annoying nature, not to mention his God-awful family, makes it extremely difficult to connect to the story. I almost wish the movie was named Pedro Sanchez, because he is infinitely more likeable, but just as flawed and quirky. Now arriving on DVD, where more people will get to see it than during its original small theater run, Fox has given the film an excellent presentation. With some decent extras there's more reason to check out the film, if you're considering giving this unique movie a shot, something I definitely suggest you do, if only for the experience.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.