Napoleon Dynamite Review
In an out of town part of Idaho lives Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) - a geeky high-school boy with a feverish imagination but lacking in any real "skills". Sharing the house is his elder brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell) and his grandmother (Sandy Martin). While Napoleon is off drawing "Ligers" his brother is progressing in his online relationship, hoping to soon meet the woman of his dreams.
One day at school Napoleon befriends a new student by the name of Pedro (Efren Ramirez), who turns out to be the only Mexican in attendance. Pedro is equally as lethargic as his new friend and the pair soon treats each other as allies in a school where they are considered outcasts. Soon Napoleon's grandmother is injured in a buggy accident and his uncle Rico (Jon Gries) is asked to come and stay at the house to take care of the boys, even though they insist they're perfectly capable of looking after themselves. Rico takes it upon himself to rule the house and ask for the boys to go out and provide an income. When Kip joins Rico in selling house wares Napoleon sets out to take on meagre jobs and in between all of this he has the school dance to worry about, a girl named Deb (Tina Majorino) who is as awkward as he, and finally the school presidential elections for which a campaign to elect Pedro is soon underway.
Every once in a while a small film comes out that gains mass response, usually striking up more conversations than the traditional Hollywood blockbuster. In 2004 Napoleon Dynamite was such a case and it's a film that has enough ingredients (however obvious) to ensure its success. What separates this effort from the usual crowd of late is that it doesn't rely on gross out humour or desperate bids to pass it off as being a better film than it actually is. Napoleon Dynamite is more of a relaxed and self aware film but it is also a little too daring in taking liberties for its own good.
The film is definitely quirky but just how much quirkiness can one take? Napoleon is a character who causes some concern because he's hard to pin down. As much as we are supposed to like him and cheer for him he comes across as being rather obnoxious, it's no wonder that he doesn't have any friends. Aside from this inherent character flaw, purposeful or not the additional monotone voice in which he speaks only further goes against a character billed so highly. In the end he isn't particularly likeable despite coming out with some great stuff. So here you get two sides of the character. On one hand he is purposely dull but this doesn't make for the best of viewing, while on the other he provides a good amount of comedy dialogue to satisfy to a certain extent.
For some reason Writer and Director Jared Hess has come up with a seemingly personal tale about a young man trying to forget the world around him, or simply not caring about what those who shun him think, and it is curious that he has placed this character in a world where there are several other folk equally as dull as Napoleon himself. His friend Pedro, brother Kip and the girl, Deb are all characters who seem pretty devoid of being anything more than one dimensional but are used well enough with what the material allows. With the arrival of uncle Rico though things start to take a decent turn as his by now fresher change of pace livens up the proceedings. Jon Gries is undoubtedly the best thing in the film as a loser, still stuck in the 80's, who dreams of going back in time to change the course of his life, with Diedrich Bader’s cameo as an expert in the art of "Rex Kwon Do" stealing some fine moments.
When it comes to Napoleon Dynamite's tale it is really nothing more than a series of events that play out like skits as opposed to actually fitting together better as part of the story. There's a very thin layer to the plot that connects them but at times it feels disjointed and things aren't helped when the main joke is dragging on and on. The key problem is that the film just isn't as hilarious as the comments I've read elsewhere had led me to believe. I can handle a selection of comedy set pieces without much in the way of plot and I like my quirky and surreal humour, yet Napoleon Dynamite never strikes a big enough chord, it never seizes a perfect opportunity, save for one or two scenes - and one of those relied heavily on The A-Team theme tune, which admittedly made me chuckle and raise a big smile on my face.
There isn't really much more to say. Napoleon Dynamite left me with a neutral feeling, one of disappointment yet at the same time I came away liking a part of it. The film is enjoyable without being demanding and shows a lot of promise in its director but at the end of the day it comes across as less of a full film and more of a sketch based experiment. It does have a fresh approach to comedy but there isn't enough originality to make it stand out. Whether you like this film or not depends on just how much you can gain from its lead characters and seeing as they are the most important aspect of the film that task may be a difficult one.
The pretty sweet DVD
20th Century Fox present Napoleon Dynamite as a double sided DVD containing both Full Screen and Widescreen versions of the film. On a personal note I really dislike these types of disc and my biggest complaint with this release is that the extra features, which I’ll get to shortly, are split over the two sides. Otherwise the disc presentation is excellent, with some splendid menu designs that spark some flair.
I'm only going to be reviewing the correct ratio for this release which is featured on side B. The film is presented in an anamorphic 1.74:1 aspect ratio and considering its relatively small budget looks great on the DVD format. Colour reproduction is very natural, with some fine detail for the most part but unfortunately the dreaded edge enhancement makes an appearance.
The film comes with an English 5.1 Dolby Surround track as well as Spanish Dolby Surround and a 2.0 commentary. This is probably one of the most sonically undemanding films of the year. There is very little need for a full 5.1 makeover as much of the film is dialogue based. However there are a couple of decent examples, when we hear The A-Team theme tune or when the school presidential elections take place. With only a couple of songs benefiting from the mix the film quite happily plods along, sounding crisp and clear.
Audio Commentary with Director Jared Hess, Actor Jon Heder and Producer Jeremy Coon
Jared Hess covers a lot of ground with regards to the history of making the film and how much of the dialogue and certain scenes are inspired from real life events, all of which is done in a very relaxed manner without going into any technical details. There are a few scenes that are mentioned as personal favourites and a few cast extras pointed out here and there. While not really an essential extra the guys commenting seem to be having a good time.
"Peluca". Original short film with optional commentary
This is Jared Hess's 16mm film school short that inspires Napoleon Dynamite. Due to the film being processed wrong it features a heavy amount of grain as explained in the commentary. The 8-minute film also stars Jon Heder who is essentially Napoleon but has a different name here. Most of what you will see here has been replicated in Napoleon Dynamite.
"The Wedding of the Century" Making of Featurette
This runs close to 4-minutes and goes behind the scenes of the cast reunion as they film the wedding scene that appears at the very end of the film's credits.
MTV On-Air Promos
There are seven spots that can be played individually or all together. The first five show various clips from the film while the last two are newly recorded spots that are okay but nothing really funny.
A 32-second advert for the soundtrack that also features dialogue from the film.
Trailer: Arrested Development
A preview for the latest American comedy craze.
Audio Commentary with Jared Hess, Jon Heder and Jeremy Coon
This is identical to the commentary on the reverse side.
This is a collection of 43 photographs, taken behind the scenes.
Deleted Scenes with optional Commentary
We have here four deleted scenes presented in a non-anamorphic time coded frame; "2nd locker room scene", "Pedro's holy chip flashback", "Extended thrift store scene and la tienda lotto ticket" and finally "Kickball scene with Pedro and Napoleon montage".
The commentary doesn't go into any great detail as to why these were deleted, other than just saying it was to keep the momentum of the film going but when watching them I can't help but feel that most should have been left intact as they're amusing, particularly Pedro's "holy chip" story.
After seeing the theatrical trailer several months back I had really hoped that Napoleon Dynamite was going to be something very special. The film could have offered so much more and should have provided a greater personal and emotional impact, something which it comes so damn close to achieving. At the end Napoleon still manages to leave us with a smile so it's not all bad, certainly a lot better than the recent spate of teen comedies seen in recent years, of which I loath.