Fox // 2004 // 95 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge David Ryan (Retired) // April 4th, 2005
"Pedro offers you his protection."
Every year, it seems, there's at least one independent film that comes absolutely out of nowhere, gets a lot of buzz at Cannes or Sundance or one of the other major film festivals, is the subject of a massive studio bidding war, becomes a critical darling, and then turns into a hit in the theaters. You know the names -- The Blair Witch Project, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and so forth.
In 2004, those laurels fell at the altar of an extremely low-budget first-feature comedy directed by an Idaho-based Brigham Young graduate named Jared Hess -- Napoleon Dynamite. (The producers insist they had no idea that "Napoleon Dynamite" was the assumed name Elvis Costello used on his 1986 album Blood & Chocolate. Yeah, sure. I'll buy that for a dollar.) Like most first-time filmmakers, Hess wrote about (with the help of his wife Jerusha) and filmed what he knew -- in this case, the social scene (or lack thereof) in small-town Preston, Idaho.
Nominally focused on the title character, an awkward teen played to perfection by newcomer Jon Heder, the film really has five "leads," deftly intertwining their stories over the course of an hour and a half. But it does so in a thoroughly unique style; the film is almost anti-cinematic in its approach, coming off as if it were an amateurish docudrama with real-life people reenacting real-life events. But this tonality (or lack thereof) -- which is intentional, mind you, not the result of any deficiency on the part of Hess as a director -- only makes the film that much more charming. Imagine a big-screen version of one of the Max Fischer Players' productions from Rushmore, and you've got the idea.
Napoleon Dynamite really defies description -- so here goes nothing...
Napoleon Dynamite drops you straight into the world of its protagonist without much fanfare. Napoleon (Jon Heder) is a high school student who lives in a modest ranch house with his brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) and their grandmother, Grandma (Sandy Martin). Kip, who looks to be in his early 30s, spends most of his day online "chatting with hot babes" and "training to be a cage fighter." (He's about as physically threatening as a newborn kitten.)
When Grandma has to take a trip (to go ATV-riding -- she's a wild one, that Grandma), the boys' Uncle Rico (Jon Gries, Real Genius) leaves his trailer to come to the house and watch them for a few days. He quickly develops a plan to make himself rich by selling Tupperware-like plasticware sets; Kip soon joins him, seeking to earn money to buy a plane ticket to Idaho for his online girlfriend LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery).
Meanwhile, at school, Napoleon has befriended the new kid, a Latino boy named Pedro Sanchez (Efren Ramirez, Kazaam). Pedro is as much of an outcast as Napoleon, so they get along just fine. The two form an odd alliance, one that is eventually augmented by another outcast, Deb (Tina Majorino, Waterworld, Corrina, Corrina), a quiet wallflower who also doubles as a studio photographer.
When the time for the school dance comes around, Napoleon assists Pedro in his pursuit of the local Hot Chick, Summer (Haylie Duff), for his date. Rebuffed, Pedro winds up going with Deb, while Napoleon (with some unexpected help from Uncle Rico) unexpectedly scores Summer's friend Trisha (Emily Kennard) as his date. Things don't go well. But Pedro hatches an idea about how to get back at Summer -- he'll run against her for class president. Can Pedro score an upset victory with Napoleon's assistance? Will Kip ever find true love? Have you ever taken that bike off any sweet jumps?
Napoleon Dynamite is a very, very difficult film to review. It almost defies explanation. I'll tell you this right off the bat: I liked it, and it held up well under repeated viewings. The film has a peculiar charm that's highly unique. On the other hand, when people don't like this film, they seem to absolutely loathe it. To be honest, I can understand that reaction as well. Napoleon Dynamite is all about tonality -- and if you aren't a fan of tonal comedy, there's almost nothing here for you.
As mentioned above, this film is performed with a unique, non-acting style. The best metaphor I can come up with is this: It's as if these characters were real people, and they were asked to play themselves in a film about these events. Ironically, this -- style? technique? creative decision? I'm not sure what to call it -- makes the acting performances all the more remarkable. It's actually very, very difficult to act poorly, but not act so poorly that your performance becomes unwatchable. All three of the leads -- newcomer Jon Heder, and experienced actors Efren Ramirez and Tina Majorino -- walk this fine line with precision. Curly-headed Heder has received the most attention for his performance, since he's the most visible character of the trio, and praise is certainly due to him. But for me, it was Ramirez's Pedro that won me over.
I've known a few Pedros in my life -- the quiet, shy Latino kid, probably the youngest in his family, who just seems to anonymously roll with whatever punches life throws at him -- so it was sort of fun to get to know another one. His friendship with Napoleon is beautifully realistic. The two of them are both outcasts, but for different reasons. Napoleon is well-known, but rejected by the "cool kids" because he's just plain weird. Although Pedro is a minority in his school, he somehow manages to be as inconspicuous as a piece of furniture, and is excluded from the in-crowd in large part because they don't know he actually exists. Naturally, Napoleon is the only one the principal can find to show Pedro around on his first day of school. Somehow, they intuitively know that this friendship is probably as good as it's going to get for either of them, and find some common bonding ground. (In their case, it's Pedro's sweet bike.) It's all very natural and non-Hollywood; even though the relationship doesn't develop in a traditionally dramatic way, in the end it just feels better than a traditionally scripted friendship.
On the other hand, how can I ignore Deb? Although she gets the least amount of screen time of the three, Deb is arguably the most fleshed-out character, and I often found myself thinking -- with dismay -- that she hadn't been on screen for a while. Maybe it's the ponytail sticking straight out from the side of her head, or her incredibly awkward attempt at selling keychains and/or glamour photography services door-to-door, but it's hard to say that she isn't as interesting as Pedro.
But that's the real beauty of the film -- these characters are so real that most viewers can immediately identify, and therefore bond, with one or more of them, leading to a more enjoyable viewing experience. Instead of wanting to see where the story goes, we want to see where these people go.
Hess certainly shows promise in this, his first feature. Stylistically, his most obvious influence is Wes Anderson -- Hess shares Anderson's penchant for neo-Neoclassical composition, fixed cameras, and bright colors. The film is well-paced, clocking in at just about 90 minutes. His cuts (at least the ones evidenced by the deleted scenes) are sensible and wise. The script does a good job of filling in the blanks on these characters within the film's unique style and tone. All in all, it's a first film that leaves you curious as to what will come next.
It's also interesting -- and, to an extent, heartening -- to see Hess create a quality comedy without any profanity or sex. The film is rated PG, but it's a very soft PG -- the only thing keeping it from a legitimate G rating is the occasional physical bullying Napoleon undergoes. (And, of course, the fact that a G rating is a commercial kiss of death.) Ultimately, this is a very positive film, with lots of good messages for kids and/or families -- and it achieves this without becoming a stuffy, highly religious lecture. It's also proven to be arguably the most quotable film since This Is Spinal Tap. Sweet!
But is the film funny? Aye, there's the rub. Some people find it side-splittingly hysterical; I didn't, but I did find it to be entertainingly funny. However, some people view the film as utterly devoid of humor. One's enjoyment of Napoleon Dynamite is absolutely correlated with one's appreciation for tonal humor. But that's a discussion best left for the rebuttal...
The DVD presentation of Napoleon Dynamite is solid, given its low-budget, independent pedigree. The film is presented on a flipper disc, with a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer on one side, and a full screen pan-and-scan transfer on the other. Both are solid transfers; colors are sharp and well-saturated, and Idaho never looked so good. The 5.1 Surround mix is competent, but probably overkill for this particular film, which has little to no sound design. English, Spanish, and French subtitles are provided.
The special features are split between the two sides of the disc. Each side has a commentary track to accompany the feature, done by Hess, Heder, and producer Jeremy Coon. It's a very solid track, giving the listener some good insight into the characters and the story, and a lot of insight into the challenges of making your first film on a shoestring budget.
The fullscreen version side incorporates the bulk of the features, including Peluca, the eight-minute short film Hess made in film school that was the prototype for Napoleon Dynamite. (It also featured Heder in the lead role.) It has an optional commentary track by Hess, Heder, and Coon. Some promo spots for the film (aired on MTV) are included, some of which contain original mini-scenes with Pedro and/or Napoleon. There's also a "making of" featurette, which actually covers the "bonus" wedding scene added to the film after it went into wide distribution. This scene was actually filmed over a year after the main film was made, thanks to some additional funding provided by Fox (which also paid for new credit sequences), and served as a bit of a reunion for the cast. The featurette is short, but pleasant enough. Rounding out this set of features is a promo spot for the film's soundtrack, and -- somewhat inexplicably -- a brief commercial for Arrested Development.
The widescreen side has a collection of deleted scenes, all of which have commentary from Hess, Heder, and Coon. The scenes are a curiosity at best; they were deservedly cut from the feature. A stills gallery and trailers for other Fox Searchlight releases round out this side's extras.
A long time ago, in a galaxy...um...right here, there lived a man named Ernie Kovacs. Kovacs was a pioneer in television comedy, ranking in importance right up there with Sid Caesar and Uncle Miltie. In fact, I'd argue that Kovacs was more important in the history of television than either Caesar or Berle. True, Berle was the first comedian to transport the stage-based slapstick comedy of the vaudeville era to television, while Caesar and his hideously talented staff of writers essentially created and defined what we know today as "sketch comedy." But it was Kovacs who pioneered the things that have come to define today's television comedy, and, to a certain extent, film comedy as well -- complex sight gags that exploited video technology, "situational" comedy, and -- most important for this interview -- tonal comedy. Sadly, Kovacs died in a car crash in 1962, but he left behind a legacy of programming that has been the root inspiration for such widely disparate works as Laugh-In, Saturday Night Live, the films of Albert Brooks, and, of course, Napoleon Dynamite.
What is "tonal comedy"? It's comedy in which the humor is derived more from how something is said or done, than necessarily from what is said or done. Probably the most recognizable practitioner of this style of comedy was the late Andy Kaufman. One of his more memorable tonal bits, from an appearance on Saturday Night Live, begins with Kaufman standing silently on stage next to a phonograph. He starts the record playing, and we hear the tinny strains of the Mighty Mouse theme song. Kaufman remained silent and still, except when the lyric "Here I come to save the day!" was sung in the song. He dramatically pantomimed singing that line, but did nothing else. That's it -- that's the entire bit.
Fans of Kaufman -- I count myself among that lot -- find this bit absolutely hysterical. It's not the Mighty Mouse song that's funny. It's not his pantomime singing. It's the in-between moments -- the images of Kaufman just standing there, doing nothing, waiting for the next chorus -- that are funny. In other words, it's the tone of the piece that fans find funny -- not the content.
On the other hand, some people absolutely don't get this kind of humor. Andy Kaufman pretending to sing one line of Mighty Mouse is a waste of two minutes for them. There's no joke, there's no sight gag, there's nothing they find remotely entertaining. And that's...okay. I don't agree with this position, but many people in the world do.
Why is this important? Because Napoleon Dynamite is an extremely tonal comedy. It's not as surreal as a Kaufman bit, but it's in the same vein. Therefore, a lot of people won't like this film in the least.
The best (and actually the only) cinematic comparison I can come up with is Albert Brooks's first film, Real Life (a spoof of the 1973 PBS documentary An American Family). It's not a perfect comparison by any means -- the Brooks film is more traditional in its style than Napoleon Dynamite -- but both mine a great deal of comedy from their tonality and the seeming "non-acting" of their stars. (Real Life featured the great Charles Grodin, whose utterly deadpan wit would have fit in perfectly with the Napoleon Dynamite cast.)
So consider yourself warned -- this is a tonal piece, and not a "funny ha-ha" piece. It does have its share of one-liner gags, especially in the exchanges between Napoleon and Kip, but the core of the film's comedy is just the feel of the whole thing. If you're an Andy Kaufman or Albert Brooks fan, or you absolutely loved Frank on TV's Mystery Science Theater 3000, odds are you'll enjoy Napoleon Dynamite. But if you don't like any of these comic experiences, there's a good chance you'll wind up turning this film off halfway through out of boredom. It's just not for everyone.
Napoleon Dynamite is very much a love-it-or-hate-it motion picture. What's interesting is the virulence of opinion on the opposing sides. People don't just like it; they absolutely love it. People who don't like it tend to loudly proclaim their hatred of it.
Strangely, Your Loyal Reviewer finds himself in neither camp. I really do enjoy the film, since I'm a fan of tonal comedy. It definitely grew on me after repeated viewings. But I wouldn't call it the "funniest film I've ever seen," as some have. It's a unique film -- a film that looks and feels like nothing else I've seen in the past year. At its heart, it's a sweet and gentle comedy about an assortment of misfits finding strength and happiness in each other. And really, ultimately, that's all it is.
But ultimately, that's all it needs to be.
Review content copyright © 2005 David Ryan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Audio Commentary by Director Jared Hess, Producer Jeremy Coon, and Actor Jon Heder
* Short Film: Peluca (With Commentary)
* Making-of Featurette: "The Wedding of the Century"
* Deleted Scenes (With Commentary)
* Stills Gallery
* MTV Promo Spots
* Soundtrack Promo
* Fox Searchlight Trailers
* Arrested Development Promo
* Official Site
* Fan Club Site