Just make yourself a dang quesa-dilluh and read the review! Or don’t. Gosh!
Director: Jared Hess
Writer: Jared and Jerusha Hess
Stars: Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, Tina Majorino, Aaron Ruell, Jon Gries, and Haylie Duff.
Release Date: June 11, 2004
Run time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Napoleon Dynamite is a socially awkward teenager from rural Preston, Idaho, who lives with his grandmother and his equally awkward thirty-two year old brother, Kip. Napoleon’s oddities leave him largely friendless, but though all of this affects him, he does not let it show.
Early in the movie, Kip proclaims that he is training to be a cage fighter. To that end, he and Napoleon visit the local martial arts instructor, Rex, but when Rex embarrasses Kip by using him to demonstrate what he plans to teach, the two of them decide not to take his class.
Subsequently, Napoleon’s grandmother is injured in a quad-bike accident while she is out with a boyfriend Napoleon and Kip do not know about. She asks their Uncle Rico to come stay at her house and look after them while she recovers. Rico is a middle-aged former high school football athlete who lives in a campervan, in the middle of a field. Rico’s mind is permanently fixed on 1982, his senior year in high school, and the end of his football career. Uncle Rico, while he is there, starts up a get-rich-quick endeavor with Kip, selling Tupperware door-to-door. Kip uses the income to pay for his internet girlfriend, LaFawnduh, to visit him from Detroit. Rico meanwhile is hoping to use money to get over his failed dreams of playing in the NFL and a recent breakup with his girlfriend.
Napoleon sees a new student, Pedro Sanchez, being guided by a school administrator and offers to show Pedro his locker. They soon become friends. He also meets Deb, a shy girl from his school, when she comes by his house selling trinkets to raise money for college. While she is mid-pitch, talking about college, Kip calls out from inside the house, “your mom goes to college,” causing Deb to leave her supplies and run away. When Napoleon returns her stuff to her at school, they become friends, too.
The school is going to have a dance. Pedro and Napoleon look for dates. First, Pedro asks Summer Wheatley to the dance. She is popular, snobby, and tells him emphatically “no!” through a note that Napoleon delivers to Pedro. Next, Pedro asks Deb who says happily says yes. Pedro pushes Napoleon to ask someone, too, and he encourages Napoleon to give the girl he asks a drawing – as Napoleon likes to draw. Napoleon asks a popular girl from school, Trisha, and he sketches an unintentionally bad likeness of her from a yearbook photo. Trisha’s mother learns that Napoleon has asked her. She is one of Rico’s customers and Uncle Rico tells her that Napoleon wets the bed, to evoke her sympathy Napoleon (and to buy more of his products.) Trisha’s mother forces Trisha to accept his invitation.
On the day of the dance, Napoleon is ditched by Uncle Rico – his ride – and begins to run on foot to meet Trisha. As he does this, cousins of Pedro miraculously appear in a a souped up convertible to provide them a ride. Trisha quickly ditches Napoleon once they arrive and this causes Pedro to let Napoleon dance with Deb.
Pedro decides to run for class president against Summer. Both candidates put up flyers and hand out trinkets to students, but Pedro is punished for setting up a pinata of Summer and he is required to take all of his flyers down.
Napoleon and Pedro enter a Future Farmers of America competition, grading milk and cow udders. They both do well and win medals In a separate scene, Napoleon briefly works a job at a chicken far where he is ultimately paid in loose change. Napoleon uses his money to buy an instructional dance videotape called D-Qwon’s Dance Grooves, and he begins dancing alone in his room.
LaFawnduh arrives from Detroit, gives Kip an urban makeover, and she also gives Napoleon a mixtape after she finds out that he likes to dance.
Rico’s next sales scheme involves selling bust enhancement. He makes a sales pitch to Deb and tells her that it was Napoleon’s idea, which in turn causes her to call Napoleon and end their friendship. Rico also gives his sales pitch to the wife of the town’s martial arts instructor, Rex, and Rico is assaulted when Rex unexpectedly arrives during his demonstration of the product.
On election day, Summer gives a speech and then presents a dance skit to “Larger than Life” by the Backstreet Boys. Pedro only learns about the skit requirement as this is going on, and he thus gives an unenthusiastic speech. To save Pedro’s campaign, Napoleon gives the sound engineer LaFawnduh’s mixtape, which turns out to be “Canned Heat” by Jamiroquai. and then he performs a dance routine to the song. His fellow students give him a standing ovation.
Pedro becomes the class president. Kip and LaFawnduh leave on a bus bound for Detroit. Napoleon’s grandmother returns home. Rico, back to living in his campervan in a field, reunites with his ex-girlfriend. Napoleon and Deb reconcile, with him giving her fish he bought her (because one of the things he knows about her is that she likes fish.) The movie ends as they play tetherball together.
In a post credits scene, two months later, Kip and Lafawnduh get married. After the vows, and a song performance by Kip, Napoleon rides up on a horse upon which Kip and LaFawnduh ride away.
It is hard to believe that this movie was released eighteen years ago. The setting has aged quite a bit but the comedy holds up very well.
This movie is not for everyone. I spent the first half-hour of the movie wondering why I remembered liking it, but ended the movie very pleased that I opted to do a re-watch and I have had to suppress a desire to watch it again. A lot of Napoleon Dynamite‘s initial humor is subtle and built around quirkiness and awkwardness. Those low-key jokes really start to land harder the further into the movie you go, and as you get to know the characters better. In addition, as the story progresses, everything begins to slowly descend into a highly enjoyable absurdism. The timing of that descent corresponds well with the viewer’s relationship with the characters. Just as we really get to know Napoleon, and just as we start to understand him, feel sorry for him, and get on his side, the story shifts from an odd and quirky tale about a strange family to a movie that is an unabashedly absurd and wish-fulfilling in its comedy. It works well.
The turning point of the story is the moment when Napoleon flees from Uncle Rico’s van, on foot, in an attempt to go pick up Trisha for the dance. Nothing has gone right for him to this point. We can see that his parents are gone, though we do not know why. His grandmother is temporarily gone. His uncle is mean to him. He is bullied at school. He is insecure but faces it all with a stiff, albeit awkward, upper lip. But here he is, unintentionally wearing a woman’s suit, ready to go to the dance, and he is on foot, on a dirt road, in the middle of nowhere, trying to get back to town.
Pedro’s cousins miraculously arrive to save him. From this moment forward, the story gets increasingly miraculous, and funny, for Napoleon and his friends. Wimpy nerdy Kip finds his soulmate online, in the form of LaFawnduh, an African American woman from Detroit who immediately redresses Kip in hip hop regalia. He of course looks absurd… but he is happy. So is she. Pedro stages an unlikely bid for class president. One day, during the campaign, Napoleon notices another student being bullied, and approaches the kid afterwards with an offer.
Napoleon: Pedro offers you his protection.
The kid takes a Pedro for President bracelet. When his bully bothers him the next time, Pedro’s cousins miraculously (and hilariously) appear to protect him from the bully.
After all that he has done to make Napoleon’s life worse, Rico finally faces a laugh-out-loud comeuppance in the form of Rex, the martial arts instructor.
Most memorably, Napoleon makes a personal sacrifice to save Pedro’s presidential bid by showing his dancing skills to the entire school… and not only is he so good that it’s funny, he finally gets a win because everyone recognizes how good he is and gives him a standing ovation.
In addition to the comedy, the story is also heart-warming. Pedro becomes class President and finds acceptance in his new rural Idaho home. The socially inept Dynamite boys both get their girls. Uncle Rico gets another chance with his ex-girlfriend. By the time the credits roll, you find yourself feeling good about life.
The soundtrack for Napoleon Dynamite really benefits the film by imbuing it with coming-of-age emotion. The White Stripes’ “We Are Going to Be Friends” plays as the movie opens. During the critical scene from the dance, where Napoleon sees that he has been ditched, Alphaville’s “Forever Young” plays and it’s easy to feel the dissonance between the song’s message and the movie’s message of how terrible it is for Napoleon to be young. A moment later, though, also at the dance, Napoleon gets to dance with Deb (the girl he likes) to “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper, a high school dance staple. And of course, when a movie ends with “The Promise” by When In Rome, you’re going to be feeling really good as the credits are rolling.
This is a great script, with a perfect cast, a beautiful setting, and it’s just really funny. There are a lot of subtle jokes sprinkled in throughout this highly quotable movie and I could not begin to mention them all. The humor blends really well with the personal stories and the arc that each character is moving through. The conclusion feels really satisfying even if it is clearly implausible and ridiculous.
If you remember liking this movie when it came out, I recommend giving it another look.