WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: Loner Napoleon and his brother Kip are left to fend for themselves (and a llama) when their grandmother has a quad bike accident on the dunes. Pigskin-wielding Uncle Rico arrives to look after them and soon starts interfering in their affairs, including Napoleon’s High School Prom and fledgling political career.
A refreshing antidote to a slew of high school movies, Napoleon Dynamite takes high school staples and plays around with them, using the simple trick of making the school’s beautiful people not very beautiful and working down from there. Napoleon is initially presented as a bullied loner, a weirdo with a weird family. But as he goes through the school year with its familiar mileposts of the school dance and election, he gains friends and admirers – okay, a friend and an admirer – in his campaign to help fellow outsider Pedro become school president.
And that, essentially, is it. Napoleon Dynamite is a contained, understated film whose humour comes across so subtly, without a hint of mugging by the actors, that it comes within a whisker of underselling itself as a low-budget oddity. But this is the key to the film’s appeal: the characters are funny because they take themselves entirely seriously. Too often comedies suffer because the actors think they are so funny, characterisation is optional (Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn et al, I’m looking at you). Here, Jon Heder is excellent in the title role and Efren Ramirez as Pedro underplays nicely.
Credit too to Tina Majorino as Deb, the mousy love interest with whom Napoleon shares a sweet, chaste romance. In other films, Deb and Napoleon would both undergo a miraculous makeover and dazzle their fellow students at the prom; but true to the rest of the film, the couple get no closer than a brief touch of hands and a game of tetherball. Napoleon’s highpoint in the whole movie is the exhibition of dancing skills in support of Pedro’s presidential campaign, after which he promptly flees the stage.
Mention should also be made of Aaron Ruell, superb as Napoleon’s man-child brother Kip; indeed he almost steals the film. Kip finds love on the internet and although his belle is not the ‘sandy blonde’ he believes he has been chatting with, his courtship is both funny and touching. Amongst these delicate flowers aggressive salesman Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) is rather overpowering, but this is the point of his character and deep down he is a tragic figure, regretting the past desperately enough to buy and attempt to use an excruciatingly painful ‘time machine’ from the Internet.
Napoleon’s world is not explicitly set in a particular time. Although the VCRs, Tupperware, clothes and hairstyles strongly evoke the 1980s, we are allowed to infer that the Dynamites, and the town of Preston as a whole, are merely behind the times. I am in no way qualified to say whether this is a comment on the State of Idaho, but if it is a joke it’s an affectionate one.
Ultimately the film runs out of steam, partly because this is what comedies tend to do; but there is also a sense that Napoleon and company only have these short, small-town stories within them. Nevertheless, the tale is positive, and silly in the best sense of the word. Napoleon is a man who does the right thing at the right time: he is a hero, and a romantic hero at that. Napoleon Dynamite is not a film that demands to be seen time and again: but it deserves to be seen once.