PG and I suppose that's mostly fine. But the movie is really loaded with a lot of uncomfortable and problematic racial stereotypes. It's a "laugh-at" movie for a good chunk of the film instead of "laugh with". The movie is also really cool with bullying. It's something that we're supposed to be laughing at. I'm coming down hard, but it is something that really gets ignored in the film as a whole. There's also some sexual predatory behavior in the movie. Regardless, PG kinda sorta makes sense. It's really on that line.
DIRECTOR: Jared Hess
My stepfather and I had a really big blow out post-college. It was over a broken printer and I was going to leave home. It makes sense, because I was out of college. But I had very few prospects. I was finishing up a post-bachelors education degree. My mom settled things up. Well, as a gesture of good will, I wanted to take the 'rents to a movie that was mostly non-offensive but was life changing. This had to be the second or third time that I was seeing Napoleon Dynamite in theaters. I guffawed the entire time. My side hurt. My stepfather thought it was one of the dumbest things he'd ever seen.
But he might have had a point. Like, I don't know if Napoleon Dynamite holds up. Since the halcyon days of almost severing ties with my family in 2004, people have so completely embraced Napoleon Dynamite that it has become part of the cultural lexicon. The movie was quoted and overquoted. Everyone had a Napoleon impression. Uncomfortable people had a Pedro impression. It's a movie that almost can't be surprising anymore. In 2020, my students still love this movie. The senior class a few years ago made their class tee-shirt a "Vote for Pedro" shirt with their graduation year hidden in the name. It's something that really won't die. I'm glad it won't die. But what happens to a movie when it becomes so commonplace that the movie holds no surprises anymore?
I'm going to go real hipster with this review. I'm aware that the battle for "I liked it before it was cool" is a weak position to take, but there might actually be an argument for hipster cred here. There are movies that are so culturally transcendent that they actually become kind of annoying. Before Napoleon Dynamite, there was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It doesn't only stick for comedies. I easily rank Fight Club and The Dark Knight in these lists too. They are so part of the zeitgeist that they stop being cinematic experiences anymore. Instead, they are rated on a sense of being rad. The movies lose their emotional resonance and they become about the Mountain Dewing of film. Rather than experience things anew or rediscovering something forgotten, these movies tend to be about who can watch the same film over and over. Now, I am one of the criminals who did this. I watched and re-watched Napoleon Dynamite. I knew every line. But then I went on my quest to watch basically every movie and I kind of left Napoleon Dynamite in the dust. But it is one of the foundational pieces in my Fox Searchlight box set and my mental process is that, if I own a copy of it, I have to watch that copy. (Note: I just got the Criterion edition of The Darjeeling Limited and I just watched the non-Criterion version kind of recently. I watched it anyway. I'm intense.) What was it like watching a movie after a decade that I knew every moment?
Fine, I guess. It wasn't a movie experience. Rather, it was a series of "Oh, I remember this scene." But as a guy who is creeping up on 40, I didn't find Napoleon Dynamite to be as smart as I used to. The opening credits are wonderfully deceiving. I honestly forgot about the opening credits and how the tone is mimicking the quirky tweeness of Wes Anderson. The film screams "Fox Searchlight", but that's what kind of allows the film to have a non-traditional narrative. Rather than having a traditional narrative, the film is actually loosely connected vignettes mirroring the experiences of an outsider in a year of high school. That seems kind of obvious, but we have to accept that these moments in the movie aren't Napoleon's greatest moments. Rather, this is a typical day in the life for Napoleon. I remember that there was an animated series follow up to the movie which kind of retreaded some of the same beats as the film. That's probably a big mistake because nothing implies that these are the glory days for Napoleon. Napoleon himself has no long term goals for the film. He lives his life the way that he wants to, but doesn't actually crave change. Really, any goals that are attached to Napoleon are artificially put on by the audience.
As audience members, we fight for Napoleon's acceptance in this world. Summer and Don are the actual worst and we want a Revenge of the Nerds style conclusion for these characters, without all the sexual assault. But Napoleon doesn't really want that. Instead, he wants to continue living his weird life. He does nothing to really change his behavior for others. One could argue that Napoleon improves himself for Deb, but the movie never really establishes that Napoleon has any vices when it comes to treating the opposite sex with respect. The Napoleon of the beginning of the movie is the same Napoleon as the end of the movie. This does create a weird element in the film that is entirely meant for the audience's sense of completion. It's everyone's most memorable part of the film and it makes almost no sense. It's there as emotional manipulation. I'm prefacing it by saying that manipulation is fine, but I do want to point it out and then ruin it for everyone because I'm the worst!
I'm talking about the dance sequence. You know the act that shows up at every talent show where someone does the Napoleon moon boot dance? That scene is great. It is this absolutely cathartic. Napoleon, because of all of his practicing in his room alone, has this silly, but well-honed dance number. Summer has just presented her Helping Hands Club presentation (which is actually way more awesome than Napoleon's) and Pedro doesn't have a shot. But Napoleon presents this dance in spite of seeming impossible odds. Cool. We all applaud because Summer and Don don't get what they want. Pedro is president. That's what we all want. But let's talk about how the rest of the movie doesn't support this ending at all. Trust me, Jared Hess should have included this in the movie. It's the emotional moment we all needed. But the entire film shows people treating Napoleon like dirt. He's shoved and we all laugh. When Napoleon has terrible things happen to him, that's the joke of the film. The scene that cracks me up still is Napoleon and the time machine. He's the punching bag. We've all been trained to understand that the punching bag is supposed to have his big moment of joy. But remember, in the story of the film, everyone still really likes Summer and Don and no one really likes Napoleon. It's not like Napoleon went through this spiritual journey befriending the outcasts of the school. No, Napoleon is still completely isolated. If the entire school gives a standing ovation, it should be for Pedro.
Pedro is the character who actually takes chances and has a character journey. Oddly enough, the movie should have Pedro as the protagonist of the movie with Napoleon as his hilarious sidekick. Pedro goes from being social outcast to taking chances throughout the film, leading to his success as president. Pedro "offers his protection" to the weak and bullied. If the film was going to applaud actions, it would be Pedro's standing up to the toxic culture of the high school. He's the one who asks Deb and Summer out. He's the one who brings his cousins to the school and protects the nerdier kids. Really, Napoleon is just doing the same thing on a different day. It's not like Napoleon didn't let his freak flag fly from the beginning of the film. The emotional shift from his dance doesn't really makes sense. But if it's Pedro that everyone's clapping for, then it actually makes a modicum of sense. But again, this scene works despite any logical sense.
I mentioned in the MPAA section that this movie has a bit of a problematic view of racism. I think that people forgive the movie because the white people come across as the worst people in the group. The only likable white people in the movie are Napoleon and Deb. But I don't necessarily love the stereotypes presented in the other characters. Pedro and his cousins is overly simplistic. These characters come across as one dimensional. The fact that Kip's girlfriend's name is Lafawnduh is pretty cringy as well. Then there's the casual attitude of Uncle Rico's boundaries. Uncle Rico is probably the bad guy of the film (that for some reason is made sympathetic at the end?). Is Rico sleeping with these women around town? It's implied that Rico is going on dates trying to sell tupperware. But Rico actually comes across as really rapey to Deb when he's selling his Bust Must Plus. It's all done for the sake of a joke, but I really don't like that scene. It feels like he's trying to seduce her, and then he only does it so that she buys a gross product. It's a lot of stuff done for humor that doesn't fly well. (Don't worry, I'm going to get really virtue signal-y later because my son picked Peter Pan for family movie night.)
I will never begrudge anyone for liking this movie. I absolutely adored it when it came out. I may have ruined it for myself by watching it too much. But Napoleon Dynamite is more of a movie of atmosphere than actual crafting. The jokes are laughing at awkwardness without the actual content to actually make sense. I feel bad for my stepfather for having to sit through that. If you didn't feel like making fun of this kid for being a dork, there's really not much content beyond that. But I also get why it's really funny at the same time. Regardless, I wish that there was a way to get back the discovery of Napoleon Dynamite for the first time.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.