Napoleon Dynamite is a 2004 cult classic directed by Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess, starring Jon Heder. The film follows the titular character’s struggles and triumphs at home and in high school in the little town of Preston, Idaho. In the film we meet Napoleon, his grandma (who seems to love her llama more than her grandchildren), his brother, his uncle (a frightening specimen indeed), his friends, and nemeses. Napoleon, like his Corsican namesake, is a bit of a missfit (many who go on to be totalitarian rulers start out as missfits, but I will leave it to the viewer to decide if this Napoleon grows up to conquer large swaths of western world). Though the civilized world can’t be too much to blame for disliking either Napoleon, as both are quite egotistical. The only way any empathy could be generated by his somewhat geeky mostly dorky character is to surround him with people equally or more revolting. How else could we empathize with a guy who is constantly lying and putting others down to feel good about himself?
Over the course of the film we one can start to even admire him a little for defending fellow losers from bullies, befriending a new student named Pedro, and letting Pedro take the girl he likes to the school dance. Behind the all of the hair and tater tots he has a heart which actually thinks about how his own actions make others feel, which makes his uncivilized character the most chivalrous in a small town world of depressingly arrogant and one dimensional people.
Before I go on, I must touch on the genre which this film falls into. I’m going to suggest this is in fact only partly a comedy, and more likely falls into what I will call the high school genre, which includes films such as High School Musical (by definition), The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, as well as the geek high school film sub genre with films like Wargames, and the webseries Video Game High School. Now, films like these are always a bit interesting to me not because they speak to my experiences but that they transport me to strange worlds.
Many films are about underdogs, but this seems to be a particularly important aspect in high school films. Napoleon Dynamite is not an exception. Napoleon is going to prove to the school that his unique talents (or lack thereof) are what will propel him to victory over the forces massed against him.
In what appears to be a combination dance-off/speech where the opposing candidates for school presidents face off in front of their peers (Pedro vs. the stereotypical blonde popular girl), Napoleon dances in Pedro’s places and receives a standing ovation, which apparently is implied to be the defining moment in Pedro’s bid for the presidency (perhaps we ought to combine the MTV Video Music Awards with presidential debates).
The film still depresses me and I will likely not watch it again (I still don’t understand the comedic vibe they were going for). No one in this film really loves each other, and no one really changes.
By definition cult films will always have a small vibrant group of fans. If you love this film, good on you, even if I can’t see any reason to myself. It is merely a glimpse into a world I wish not to go to. We can agree to disagree about this film. I won’t call you an idiot or slam you into your upright steel storage unit (I believe they call them lockers in your world). In fact, I might even agree to stand awkwardly next to you on the fringes of that weird school dance where they play awful 80s music because we can still be friends regardless of the merits of this film.