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Napoleon Dynamite Review

By Shawn McKenzie 06/27/2005

I like to stay on top of what is big in the world of pop culture, so when the 2005 MTV Movie Awards gave Napoleon Dynamite its highest honor (along with two other awards for Best Musical Performance and Breakthrough Male), I had to check it out.  I had always intended to see it, but life events got in the way (see here for an explanation.)  Other critics who knew me figured that I would worship this movie anyway, and though I didn’t necessarily consider it worship-worthy, it was an odd, funny movie.

Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is a goofy-looking high school kid with glasses, a weird orange nerd ‘fro, moon boots, and half-closed eyes, who lives in Preston, Idaho.  He thinks that he possesses some sweet ninja skills, but he ends up getting beaten up by bullies like Don (Trevor Snarr) and Randy (Bracken Johnson.)  Napoleon has a few odd tastes that are all his own:  he likes to play one-person tetherball, he likes to draw pictures (especially of fantasy characters, like a “liger,” a half-lion, half-tiger), dragging action figures out of the school bus window by a string, and participating in a sign-language club.  He is a member of the Future Farmers of America (a.k.a. the FFA) and he test-tastes milk for them.  He supposedly hunts wolverines in Alaska, and he definitely loves eating tater tots (some of which he prefers to save for later to eat in class.)  He lives with his active Grandma (Sandy Martin), his unemployed 32-year-old brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), and their llama Tina.  Kip is having an online relationship with a tall, black woman named LaFawnduh Lucas (Shondrella Avery) living in Detroit, though Grandma isn’t too excited about having to pay for Kip’s online bills.  Kip and Napoleon go to Rex Kwon Do’s self-defense class to see if Kip can beef up to impress LaFawnduh.  After realizing that this “free lesson” from Rex (Diedrich Bader), intended to teach them some sweet moves and snag a girl like his bodybuilding wife Starla (Carmen Brady), would cost $300 for an 8-week program to continue, they decide that it is a rip-off.  One day at school, Napoleon meets a new student named Pedro Sanchez (Efren Ramirez), a blank-faced Mexican kid who becomes a friend of Napoleon.  Pedro wants to go to the high school dance, and he asks a popular girl named Summer Wheatly (Haylie Duff) to go with him.  When she turns him down in an embarrassing fashion, he asks photographer Deb (Tina Majorino), a girl who had previously tried to sell Napoleon some glamour shots and/or some boondoggle key chains to save up for college, to go with him.  This bothers Napoleon a little, because he has a small crush on Deb (she likes Napoleon too, but neither of them will admit it.)  Pedro tries to help Napoleon score a date as well, and he suggests that Napoleon should draw a picture of another popular girl named Trisha Stevens (Emily Kennard) to impress her.  Napoleon does just that, and after some “urging” from Trish’s mother Ilene (Ellen Dubin), Trish agrees to go with him to the dance.  Meanwhile, Napoleon has an unwanted relative move into the Dynamite household…Uncle Rico (Jon Gries.)  Rico moves in to take care of Napoleon, Kip, and Tina when Grandma ends up in the hospital following an ATV mishap that injured her coccyx.  He lives in the world of 1982, because he still dresses like it, and he obsesses over his former high school football glory days (in fact, he tries to buy a time machine at one point that Napoleon and Kip quickly find out is a piece of crap.)  Rico tries to make money selling Crupperware (a brand of Tupperware) and herbal bust enlargement enhancers called “Bust Must Plus.”  He ropes Kip into selling the Crupperware with him, something that is supposed to make them some sweet money (sorry about the overuse of the word “sweet”…watching the movie makes you pick it up, like a song you’ve heard too many times on the radio.)  Back at school, Pedro decides to run for class president against Summer, and Napoleon helps him.  Napoleon scores some votes by offering his “protection services” to other nerds using Pedro’s buff cousins (Nano De Silva and Arturo De Silva.)  At the class presidential debate, Pedro and Napoleon find out that they have to perform a skit following their opening speeches.  Summer does a skit with some other girls to the tune of the Backstreet Boys’ “Larger than Life,” but Pedro doesn’t know what to do.  Napoleon saves Pedro’s skin by doing a dance routine to the tune of Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” that he learned from a videotape he bought at a thrift store called “D-Qwon’s Dance Grooves.”  It impresses the crowd and humiliates Summer.  It’s all just one of the many adventures of Napoleon Dynamite.

If you go into the movie blindly without knowing anything about it, you may notice that it really doesn’t have much of a plot.  It is the feature-length version of a nine-minute short student film called Peluca, written and directed by BYU alum Jared Hess, that premiered at the Slamdance film festival in 2003 (it starred Heder as a character named Seth.)  He wrote the movie with his wife Jerusha, and it borrowed many scenes from the short film.  It’s essentially a series of little bits that have nothing to do with any particular ongoing story.

The movie is just a showcase for the talents of Heder, who steals the show.  There’s a weird charm about him, which makes him hard to resist.  If it weren’t for the fact that the recent AFI “100 Years...100 Movie Quotes” only included quotes made before January 1, 2004, this movie might be included on the list with one or two quotes.  Some of the short ones that might make it are:  “Maybe I will, GOSH!;” “freakin’ idiots!;” and “heck yes.”  It might be a generational thing, but I think in time it will become a cult classic.

The other performances are interesting, though not nearly as good as Heder.  Ruell has a quiet performance, and it is funny when he becomes a homeboy after meeting with LaFawnduh.  Gries oozes sleaziness as Uncle Rico.  Ramirez portrays another quiet character as Pedro, and he essentially serves as a sidekick for the outrageous Napoleon.  Majorino is a cute girl (not a hot girl…just cute) who fits perfectly as Napoleon’s love interest.  Duff has a very small role, but she proves that she has more talent in that small role than her more famous sister Hilary.  Finally, I found it odd that Bader, one of the goofballs from ABC’s “The Drew Carey Show,” was the most muscular character in the whole movie (everyone else was very scrawny.)

One of the things that’s unique about the movie is that there is virtually nothing offensive in it.  All of the potential swear words are replaced by “gosh,” “crap,” “freakin’,” “dang,” and more.  While I wouldn’t call it a “family film,” it is appropriate for kids and its PG rating is justifiable.

While I don’t consider it one of the best movies of 2004, Napoleon Dynamite is a movie that I won’t forget.  It has entered the pop culture lexicon and will probably be remembered by many fans for years.  The DVD includes the short film Peluca, a “making-of” the final scene that follows the end credits, commentaries, deleted scenes, and more.  The movie pretty sweet, and if you don’t agree, then you are all a bunch of freakin’ idiots!  GOSH!

Get the DVD:

Get the soundtrack featuring a score by John Swihart, dialogue from the movie, and songs by Bow Wow Wow, Jamiroquai, Yaz, Alphaville, When In Rome, and more:

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Ratings System:


Catch this movie at the theater if you can...

Wait until it comes out on video...

Wait until it plays on HBO, Showtime, Starz, etc...

Demand your money back, even if you saw it for free!

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