It’s been a long time since I saw this film upon its initial release back in 2004, and I swear the film has changed an awful lot in those brief 8 years, as the last time I watched it I’m sure it was a comedy. In fact, what we have here is a character study of a mentally ill teenager from a broken home, who has grown up the best he could in a world that clearly has no place for him, and that he seems to want to be no part of.
Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder, in a role from which he shall never escape) lives with his quad-biking Grandma (Sandy Martin), 32-year old chatroom-trawling brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) and their pet llama, Tina. Yes, a llama. Isn’t that quirky? When Grandma is put in hospital after breaking her coccyx (pronounced cock-ix), the boys’ Uncle Rico (John Gries), a delusional failure with a Lego-man haircut, obsessed with door-to-door get rich quick schemes and his former football glory days, comes to look after them. Meanwhile, Napoleon befriends Pedro (Efren Ramirez), a new student whose Mexican upbringing has left him at odds with the cultural minutiae of Preston, Idaho, and attempts to forge a relationship with Deb (Tina Majorino), an equally outcast classmate trying to earn money to pay for her college tuition by taking people’s portraits.
This film doesn’t have much of a plot, instead making do with a series of sketches, skits and short stories, some of which become resolved towards the end, whilst others fizzle out and become gladly forgotten. Napoleon helps Pedro run for Class President against the popular Summer Wheatly (Hayley Duff), Kip is obsessed with meeting his Internet girlfriend for the first time, Rico is looking to get rich and/or laid, and everyone else just wants to get on with their lives, in the vain hope that this ridiculous bunch of crazies leaves them the hell alone.
If it weren’t for Kip’s use of Internet dating, it would be almost impossible to date this film. The town of Preston seems to have picked and chosen a cornucopia of cultural clashes from the second half of the 21st century, and as such has become lost with no identity of its own. Napoleon himself is dolled up in moon boots and baggy trousers with tater tot filled zip pockets, oversized glasses and an unruly mess of red curls defiantly battling against an off-centre parting. He is every nerd character from every high school movie, all rolled into one. His mind is addled from Dungeons & Dragons, with notepads full of unicorn drawings and a belief that popularity comes from having a particular set of skills – I like to think he grows up to become Liam Neeson in Taken, but that’s just me.
I will admit that I did at least chuckle at a couple of moments – Napoleon’s attempt at stuntriding on Pedro’s bike, Kip’s third act transformation, a farmer shotgunning a cow in front of a busload of school kids – but for the most part I felt that this reeked of one desperate attempt at quirkiness after another. Is there supposed to be meaning behind Napoleon dragging a G.I. Joe behind his schoolbus on a length of fishing line? Or that he apparently has some affinity for tasting defects in batches of milk? Director Jared Hess (Nacho Libre), who co-wrote with his wife Jerusha, was clearly aiming for a Wes Anderson level of kookiness, but they sadly forgot to make the film entertaining, not just odd.
Heder was perfectly cast in the film, having perfected Napoleon’s slackened jaw and vacant expression in Hess’ Peluca, the short upon which this is based, and the rest of the cast are all game and ably play their paper-thin one-note caricatures, all entirely devoid of depth. The opening credits, comprised mostly of a variety of school cafeteria lunches that will be eaten later in the film, were inventive and signposted the kind of film I was going to be watching, but sadly they were the highlight. What was most definitely not was the climax, featuring Napoleon dancing to Jamiroquai’s Canned Heat, a song which I previously liked but shall now remain sullied in my memory by a scene that goes on for far too long without ever once raising even a smile. Thank you, Napoleon Dynamite.
Maybe I just didn’t understand the film. Perhaps, as with Rex Kwan Do, the martial arts class Napoleon and Kip take in the film, I don’t have the required strength of a grizzly, reflexes of a puma or wisdom of a man required to fully appreciate this film. Amazingly this film became something of a cult classic, and it’s possibly the sheer volume of superlative-laden hype surrounding the film that has added to my disappointment. To this day I still see people wearing ‘Vote for Pedro’ t-shirts. Just what do all these people see in the film? Maybe I’ll never know. Maybe I don’t want to.
Choose life 3/10