Napoleon Dynamite

I seem to be using this phrase a lot lately, but I really wish I knew what people are smoking that makes them enjoy certain films. Napoleon Dynamite is one of those movies. Despite a distinct lack of development for the plot or characters, the film has garnered public attention and built a solid fan base. Remember that guy in school everyone made fun of? Every high school has at least one - one exceptionally strange person who doesn’t fit in anywhere, and is completely oblivious to that fact. Odds are if you don’t remember him, then it was was you, and you’re going to like this movie for its nostalgic value. Otherwise, you made fun of someone like Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), a high school loser who embellishes the truth, is caught up in his own fantasy world of ligers and unicorns, and thinks moon boots are in style.

Of course, if you don’t remember someone like Napoleon, perhaps you know someone like his Mexican friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) - equally emotionless as Napoleon, perhaps because of being perpetually stoned. And then there’s Deb (Tina Majorino), the young entrepreneur who also doesn’t seem to fit in; and Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), who still remembers his high school heyday in ‘82 when he could have won the football game; and Kip (Aaron Ruell), who is having a relationship with a woman over the internet. Basically, pick the type of loser you do remember, and you’ll find them somewhere in here.

What you won’t find, however, is any reason to show any more compassion for these characters here than you did in high school. These people live in a world of their own, tucked away from the real world. Almost all of them are devoid of any sort of emotional reaction to anything. Sure, every once in a while Napoleon gets exasperated and calls someone an idiot, but the rest of the time he speaks with a near monotone voice as he declares things “sweet” or talks about his “skills”. He never stands up for himself against high school bullies, or Kip, or Rico. He never shows much of an interest in anything. Here is a main character who is utterly content to roll with whatever blows life gives him, and while there’s something very zen in that, it doesn’t make much in the way of an interesting movie.

It is hard not to laugh as Napoleon reacts strangely to one bizarre situation after another, such as his method of playing tether ball, or his creative storage for tater-tots, or his claims of ninja training, but it’s laughing at the protagonist as much as it is with him... actually, he’s never laughing so it’s just flat out laughing at him. When Napoleon meets his supposed friends you wonder what bond keeps them together - none of the characters are defined enough to know they share anything in common other than being losers. Even as Napoleon’s if-you-can-call-him-friend Pedro decides to run for Class President (the closest thing the movie has to a plot), you don’t so much root for Napoleon as much as hope he breaks out of his coma and shows some reaction to the world around him. Napoleon and his if-you-can-call-them-friends, with their laissez faire approach to the world around them, most likely would be voted “Most Likely to Recreate Columbine”, only the movie doesn’t stick with them long enough to become that entertaining.

There was a better movie earlier this year about a loser in high school in the overlooked The Girl Next Door. While that story may have been a bit cliché at times, at least it was a story, rather than the randomly assembled scenes that make up Napoleon Dynamite. But hey, as I said, the film has a following, which means despite my opinion that you’d be better off spending your time Christmas shopping in Wal-Mart than watching this movie, you probably should check it out for yourself. Who knows - you might have smoked the right stuff to enjoy this movie. The DVD release for Napoleon Dynamite does a great job of capturing the feel of the movies with a consistent theme from package to menus. The artwork on the case continues the concept from the movie’s posters, trailer and MTV advertisements (which are included on the DVD) and the menus carry over the movie’s opening credits. It’s very well executed, and while many releases theme their discs well, there’s just something about this release that makes it worth mentioning. That said, I have one annoyance about the DVD case. Did the person who wrote the flavor text on the back even watch the movie? The text declares Dynamite is “the new kind of hero, complete with a tight ‘fro, sweet moon boots, and skills that can’t be topped.” Hmmm... doesn’t Napoleon admit in the movie he has no “skills”? The movie’s plot comes when “the trio launches a campaign to elect Pedro for class president” (they don’t so much launch a campaign as half-ass assemble one together) “and make the student body’s wildest dreams come true” (to which no effort is actually put forth other than Pedro telling the student body if they elect him their wildest dreams will come true). Come on now, sell the movie on its own merit. Don’t attempt to make it something it’s not. Reading that text before I watched the movie may have been a large part of why I expected the movie to be something other than it was.

The disc itself is a flopper, with a full screen presentation on one side, and a widescreen version on the other. While that’s usually something I’m happy about, the downside is the extras are divided up with some appearing on each side, but none of them on both.

Probably the most notable of the DVD extras is the inclusion of Jared Hess’s short film “Peluca”. Starring Jon Heder as Seth, “Peluca” is essentially a five minute version of Napoleon Dynamite, from an almost identical opening and using several other short scenes that weren’t in Dynamite, but are included in Dynamite’s deleted scenes (located elsewhere on the disc). Basically this means Napoleon Dynamite is just an extended version of a student film (or in this case amateur film, it’s never indicated that Hess went to film school). As I’ve commented before, film school projects should typically stay in film school. “Peluca” shows that Hess hasn’t grown much as a writer or director, using the same basic scenes and cinematography in his full length movie.

There’s a small behind-the-scenes featurette, titled “The Wedding of the Century”, which doesn’t go into behind the scenes on the movie, but rather the five minute epilogue that was filmed after Fox Searchlight bought the distribution rights to the film. The epilogue is placed after the credits and is best left alone, as it changes the entire tone laid down by the movie for it’s five minutes of screen time. The featurette shows Heder falling off a horse, and interviews the cast about coming back almost a year after they finished making the movie. People say stuff about how there is a real humanity to these characters, and mostly it’s just something Fox put together to have some way to market the movie.

Finally Hess, Heder, and producer Jeremy Coon sit down and provide a commentary for the film. Listening to the three of these guys talk gives the movie an even bigger feel of a film made by a bunch of friends fooling around. Hess admits a lot of the bizarre scenes are semi-autobiographical, but never really explains why he included those moments, or why the movie is strung together the way it is, or why any of this exists. Heder spends a lot of time quoting the character’s quirky dialog and flipping in and out of character, and Coon is just a buddy along for the ride. It’s a very disappointing commentary track, failing to meet a lost opportunity to explain the story a bit and perhaps offer a glimpse to the film’s success.

Since I didn’t care for Napoleon Dynamite as a movie, the extras weren’t of much use to me either. In fact, the best thing on the disc for me was a commercial for “Arrested Development”, but I can see where the extras would appeal to a fan of Dynamite’s odd characters. For me, Napoleon Dynamite’s name couldn’t be more appropriate. Dynamite is a kind of a bomb, as is this movie.