Back in 2005, it seemed like everywhere I went, someone was wearing a “Vote for Pedro” t-shirt. I remember my grade school crush incessantly quoting “What’d you do this summer, Napoleon?” “Went Wolverine hunting with my uncle, gosh!” At the time I did not understand that these people were not speaking nonsense but were referencing Jared Hess‘s lovably odd film Napoleon Dynamite.
I remember hearing mixed messages about the movie from friends, acquaintances, and film critics on the internet: Napoleon Dynamite is hilarious, stupid, and nonsensical; it gets better the more you watch it; it is not worth watching again. I finally saw the film a few years later and was instantly charmed by its deadpan strangeness and anachronistic visual and musical style. All of this personal narrative is just to highlight the palpable cultural influence Napoleon Dynamite had in North America following its release.
The film is based on a 2002 short film titled Peluca that Hess directed as a university assignment. Peluca (“wig” in Spanish) is nine minutes long, shot in black-and-white, and offers glimpses of the offbeat brilliance that was to be Napoleon Dynamite. Jon Heder stars as Seth, a teenager who skips school with his friends Pedro (Greg Hansen) and Giel (Chris Sanchez) in order to buy Giel a wig after he shaved off his hair while he had a fever.
Many visual and plot elements from Peluca carry over into the feature film: one of Napoleon’s best friends shaving off his hair and wrapping himself in a hoodie to hide his bald head, Seth/Napoleon throwing an action figure on a string out the school bus window, and much of Seth/Napoleon’s expressions and speaking patterns. It is clear that Heder had a handle on the inner and outer workings of this character from the time he starred in the short. Napoleon’s dazed, forever-frustrated, peculiar mannerisms make him one of the strangest characters in American comedy, and it’s hard to decide if he is likable or not.
Each time I watch Napoleon Dynamite, I read its tone differently. Sometimes it seems very sad, other times it feels like a loving portrait of weirdos finding joy and friendship with each other. Either way, Napoleon Dynamite has a soft emotional core, personified in the character Deb (Tina Majorino). She first meets Napoleon when she shows up on his doorstep selling homemade friendship keychains, only to nervously run away, leaving “all her crap” on Napoleon’s porch.
Deb is sweet and shy, with a side ponytail and pastel-colored clothes, and genuinely starts to like Napoleon and his best friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) as they begin to spend time together at school and Deb’s portrait studio. Nowhere is the friendship between the three friends on better display than at the school dance, where Deb shows up in an incredibly puffy pink dress and graciously dances with both Napoleon and Pedro (even though she is Pedro’s date). One of the sweetest scenes in the film is when Napoleon dances with Deb to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and compliments her dress (“I like your sleeves. They’re real big”).
One critique I have heard of the film is that it has no plot. Despite there being nothing wrong with a movie having no plot, Napoleon Dynamite is indeed somewhat unstructured. There are loose plot threads involving Pedro running for class president, the upcoming school dance, and Kip’s (Aaron Ruell) relationship with LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery), but mostly the film just drifts between a series of odd scenes portraying characters doing either mundane or inexplicable things.
Napoleon at one point works on a farm collecting eggs from chickens and later works as a milk taste-tester. Deb takes glamor portraits of Uncle Rico (John Gries) for some reason (“Imagine you are weightless and surrounded by tiny seahorses…”). Napoleon and Pedro attempt to bike off of a small ramp. Pedro shaves off his hair and goes to buy a wig. Napoleon draws a picture of his crush, Trisha (Emily Kennard). Napoleon’s grandma (Sandy Martin) goes biking at the sand dunes. Kip attempts to time-travel with an online-ordered time machine that runs on crystals. Many of these things don’t mean anything or connect us to other significant events, but it doesn’t matter. In an overwhelmingly brown and quiet place like Preston, Idaho, life is just kind of strange and mostly dull.
Roger Ebert hated Napoleon Dynamite and wrote that the film does not even try to be a comedy, but instead presents a miserable story about an unlikable, socially inept protagonist. I understand Ebert’s critiques, but I can not agree that this is a cynical or miserable movie. Napoleon is bullied at school and has a very hard time flirting with people he has a crush on (Deb, Trisha), but I do not think he is irredeemable and I think he has a strangely strong sense of self.
He desperately wants to be cool (or else, to have “skills”), yet he refuses to be anything other than who he is. He performs emotional sign-language renditions of popular songs, keeps tater tots in his pants pocket, dances hardcore in his room (and later in front of the entire school), and constantly talks about mythical creatures like ligers and Pegasuses. Napoleon’s famous dance to Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” is truly remarkable, a perfect encapsulation of Napoleon’s personality and unapologetic strangeness.
Yet, there is something more to it, because he steps up for Pedro in an attempt to outshine his rival for school president, Summer (a wonderful Haylie Duff). Napoleon either knowingly or unknowingly makes a fool of himself in front of the school in a genuine attempt to further Pedro’s chances of winning the election. The camera then cuts to Deb beaming in the audience, indicating that she too knows Napoleon has done something good, and that she admires his ability to be himself, no matter how strange he may be.
Napoleon Dynamite came out 15 years ago. It’s somewhat difficult to trace its influence on American cinema and comedy since it is such a singular work. In 2012, Fox aired an animated television series based on the film, which only lasted six episodes. Jared Hess’s follow-up works, including Nacho Libre (2006) and Gentlemen Broncos (2009) have their charms and idiosyncrasies but somehow never caught on in the same way that Napoleon did. It is also difficult to pin down what kind of comedy the film is: it’s not quite cringe-comedy, it is deadpan, it isn’t cerebral, it’s almost silly but not quite. I think that is what makes it so special, though. There is nothing else like it.
The film is ostensibly set in 2004, yet everything and everyone looks straight out of the ’80s and ’90s, a phenomenon that I know is common in small towns. The soundtrack is filled with gems that perfectly encapsulate the world of the film, such as The White Stripes’s “We’re Going to be Friends” and Alphaville’s “Forever Young.” Nothing in Napoleon Dynamite quite coheres — sure, the ending is happy, but it doesn’t really feel like an ending. There is the sense that these characters’ weird lives will just keep going exactly as they did before, if not with a few more friends by their sides.
Of course, if you wait around a little after the credits, you do get to see Kip and LaFawnduh’s wedding, during which Kip sings a wonderfully weird song called “Always and Forever” and Napoleon rides in on a “honeymoon stallion.” The end scene where Deb approaches Napoleon and they play tetherball to When in Rome’s “The Promise” is genuinely sweet, offering the sentiment that even people who are truly weird and seemingly socially inept can find people who accept them and care about them for who they are. Freakin’ sweet.