Napoleon Dynamite Movie Review

If one had to find a problem with teenage underdog movies, one of the most prominent ones would have to be that they always seem to want audiences to feel sympathy for the plight of their sad protagonists. In Napoleon Dynamite, even though the hero of the title (Jon Heder) is a four-eyed teenage misfit with no social skills and a truly frightening haircut - and he couldn't care less. Napoleon Dynamite is confident about his ability to draw fantasy characters in the pages of his Trapper Keeper ("I'm pretty much the best at it") and isn't afraid to voice his approval when something goes his way ("Sweet!") or get pissy when somebody asks him what he's doing that day ("Whatever I feel like doing, gosh!"). He's a hero for the ages; it's just not entirely clear what age.

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. The new Special Edition features all of the above plus an additional disc of extras, including more outtakes, documentaries, audition clips, and numerous other bonus features.

Surfin' U.S.A.


Napoleon Dynamite Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: PG, 2004


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