Napoleon Dynamite isn't much of a film, when you break it down outside the theater, when the cheers have died away and you're left with the nagging question: But what was it about? Napoleon attends high school in a small Idaho town, living with his much older but just as dweeby brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell) and his grandmother who, at the start of the film, has just landed herself in the hospital after a four-wheeler accident. This precipitates sleazoid Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), with his dreams of lost football glory and ideas about door-to-door sales, moving into the house to watch the boys and generally make them feel crappy about themselves. There's the barest hint of a storyline about Napoleon getting a crush on a girl from his class, Deb (Tina Majorino), but that's really only there to give him somebody to dance with at the prom. Slightly better is Napoleon's friendship with the nearly-mute Pedro (Efren Ramierez), the new kid in school, and the battle they wage against the cool clique in order to win Pedro the school presidency. Oh, and there's a big joke about tater tots - Election it ain't.
At first, Hess's script and direction feel crassly manufactured, even though it's likely that the whole thing is intensely personal. Moving so episodically from one set-piece to the next (Napoleon plays solo tetherball, hilariously; Napoleon tells a convincing story about hunting wolverines in Alaska for the summer; and so on), Napoleon Dynamite seems like an ode to Bottle Rocket-era Wes Anderson spliced with some rougher DNA from a Todd Solondz, only with little to no point. The setting is ostensibly contemporary, but the screen is loaded with nostalgic Gen-X in-jokes: throwing stars, friendship bracelets, and even a montage set to the theme from The A-Team. Is it all there just to get a condescending laugh or is Hess actually presenting a portrayal of a small town lost in time? The film moves ahead so haltingly that one has plenty of time to contemplate such things.
But, to return to an earlier point, Napoleon is nobody's victim. Yes, jocks might shove him into his locker and his spasmodic tetherball moves won't win him the love of the school princess, Summer (played with sweet evil relish by Hilary Duff's sister Haylie); but what does that matter when a guy like him has such sweet nunchucks skills? The film's a raggedy piece of work, to be sure, but one that creeps up on you, and by the end of it all, when Napoleon busts out some awesome dance moves to help out a friend in need, he's pretty much guaranteed to win over the geek inside most of us. We're only human, after all.
The highly recommended DVD includes Peluca, the black and white short film on which the feature was based, deleted scenes, commentary tracks, promo spots, and a making of featurette.
Run time: 96 mins
In Theaters: Friday 27th August 2004
Box Office USA: $44.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $46.1M
Budget: $400 thousand
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Production compaines: Access Films, Napoleon Pictures Limited, Carnival Films
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 71%
Fresh: 120 Rotten: 49
IMDB: 6.9 / 10
Director: Jared Hess
Starring: Jon Heder as Napoleon Dynamite, Aaron Ruell as Kip Dynamite, Jon Gries as Uncle Rico, Efren Ramirez as Pedro Sanchez, Shondrella Avery as LaFawnduh, Haylie Duff as Summer, Tina Majorino as Deb, Diedrich Bader as Rex, Sandy Martin as Grandma, Trevor Snarr as Don, Emily Dunn as Trisha, Ellen Dubin as Ilene