Napoleon Dynamite (Like, The Best Special Edition Ever!) Review
It’s tough being the biggest geek in Preston High School in a middle of nowhere town in Hicksville, Idaho. That honour goes to Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), a curly-haired gangly redhead wearing moonboots, but it’s not as if there isn’t serious contention from within his own family of misfits – his 32 year-old brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who spends his days chatting to hot babes on internet chat-rooms, his dirt-bike sand-dune racing Grandmother (Sandy Martin) who keeps a llama in the back yard or his 80’s time-warp Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), who even wishes he had a time machine to go back and fulfil his destiny as a major league football player. Actually, there is also plenty of competition from pretty much the majority of the population of the remote American mid-Western town.
Inevitably bullied in school, Napoleon goes with Kip to learn the martial art Rex Kwon Do, and although the fees are rather too high to continue a full course, he does at least pick up one useful hint from Rex – “use the buddy system”. The new kid in school, i.e. the only person who could be at least momentarily less cool than Napoleon, is the only likely candidate. Thus the dry, laconic Mexican immigrant Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and Napoleon pool their admittedly limited resources and non-existent charm to find themselves a date for the upcoming High School Dance. Lacking the necessary social skills, this turns out to be quite a challenge, since Napoleon’s idea of a chat-up line is “I see you’re drinking 1%. Is that ’cause you think you’re fat? ‘Cause you’re not”. It’s some measure of the social outcast status of Deb (Tina Majorino), the object of this smooth line of patter, that he is not immediately and scornfully rebuffed. However, when Pedro beats him to the mark and asks Deb to the dance, Napoleon, knowing that “Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills”, relies on his drawing talent (one that usually involves the creation of imaginary animals like the Liger - a cross between a lion and a tiger) to ask out one of the most popular girls in the school – Trisha Stevens. And what girl wouldn’t be impressed that it took “like, three hours to finish the shading on your upper lip”?
From a plot outline, Napoleon Dynamite sounds like any other American teen High School comedy – jocks and geeks, the loser who wants to ask the Homecoming Queen to the dance, the outsider running against the odds for Class President. Director Jared Hess however is more of an anti-John Hughes. In Napoleon Dynamite he expects you to identify and sympathise with a bunch of inarticulate, social inadequates, none of whom have any great hidden inner beauty or coolness waiting to be revealed by their classmates. The best these characters can hope for is that their nerdish qualities will be excessive enough to distinguish them from the inanity and mediocrity around them. Napoleon Dynamite has its great revelatory and cathartic moment, and it’s one of the best you’ll ever see – Napoleon grooving to Jamiroquai’s Canned Heat in front of the whole school - but, arguably, it doesn’t make the young man any cooler or allow him to fit in with his peers, as the unlikely redemptive narrative of a lesser mainstream Hollywood teen comedy would have you believe. In effect, Napoleon becomes the King of the Geeks, and the film consequently retains its underdog, indie and outsider status.
Guaranteeing this status are many other incidents and events scattered throughout the film that are deadpan in their delivery, yet devastatingly funny and incisively satirical. Yes, you are invited to laugh at the characters, who the film mercilessly portrays in all their social and sartorial inadequacy – but you are also invited to laugh at the director, whose life most of this is based on, and you are invited to laugh at the nerdish qualities that you can recognise here in yourself. There is true affection for these characters as much as the region the film is set in, and the film remains true to all of them, not so much allowing them to grow and develop as letting them achieve all they can within the limited scope of their destinies. It’s a film and a type of humour – pleasingly bucking the trend of this type of film by remaining PG-rated – that remains as timeless as the time-warped hairstyle, music and fashions of the inhabitants of the town. Key to the delivery of such humour is the casting and performances. They are all so good that it’s perhaps unfair to single any out, but they range from Jon Gries schmoozing it up yet always hitting the right note as Uncle Rico, to Efren Ramirez’s minimalist blank expressiveness as Pedro, whose underdog likeability very nearly steals the whole film from Heder, who bravely feels no compulsion to make Napoleon Dynamite the least bit sympathetic.
Napoleon Dynamite is a brave film, which sticks to its low-budget, indie roots and dares to be different and true to itself and its characters, all the while avoiding the pitfalls of the arty off-the-wall pretentiousness of the likes of Me And You And Everyone We Know. It presents the viewer with a dislikeable bunch of losers and outsiders who we don’t know quite how to take - yet it has enough respect for them not to sell them out or soften their edges for mainstream acceptance
Napoleon Dynamite is now released in the United States as a 2-disc Like, The Best Special Edition Ever! special edition. It is encoded for Region 1 and is in NTSC format. The DVD is packaged in a ‘Vote For Pedro’ amaray case within a hologram slipcase cover. An 8-page colour booklet contains character profiles for each of the main cast.
Clearly the primary idea of the special edition was to gather together some additional extra features rather than improve the transfer quality (and obviously to get another edition out there to cash in further on the film’s success). Consequently, there is no real improvement in the audio or video quality on the new Region 1 Special Edition, but then again there was not really a lot wrong with the original transfer – which I have previously seen in its Region 2 incarnation. It’s pretty sharp, clear and relatively stable, with little in the way of marks or flaws. The odd flicker of macro-blocking compression artefacts can be detected in backgrounds occasionally, and there is there is some minor haloing of edge-enhancement. In the main however, and particularly for a low-budget indie film, this looks exceptionally good.
The DVD comes with a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. Again, it’s are perfectly adequate and quite strong without being in any way exceptional – it’s hardly a film for special effects – and in no way improved from the mixes on the original DVD. When required however, as in the film’s climatic dance scene, there is sufficient power in the soundtrack and subwoofer action to make Canned Heat sound like the show-stealer it is.
As well as Spanish subtitles, optional English hard of hearing subtitles are included, happily accurate and complete and in a clear white font.
Commentary by Director/Co-Writer Jared Hess, Actor Jon Heder and Producer Jeremy Coon
The director’s commentary hits all the points you might expect – telling you about the actors, who they are and what their background is, and of course, favourite scenes pointed out. On its own, this is worthwhile just for the additional anecdotes since, perhaps unsurprisingly considering the accuracy and surreal quality of the events, they just couldn’t be made-up. Indeed it transpires that they are closely autobiographical of Hess and his brother’s experience – the director coming from Preston, Idaho. And yes, they even owned llamas.
Commentary by actors Aaron Ruell, Efren Ramirez, Jon Gries and Tina Majorino
The other principal actors have their own new commentary on this edition. They each talk about their casting and developing their character. The film script stood up so well that they never felt the slightest compunction to play the characters up for laughs. There are also plenty of anecdotes about shooting each of the scenes here to make this commentary also worthwhile.
On Location: Napoleon Dynamite (41:36)
This leisurely-paced making of features lots of behind-the-scenes rehearsals and multiple takes of scenes, with some neat use of split screens. It looks like they had fun making the film and improvising on set. The chicken farm scene however is absolutely revolting.
World Premiere: Jared Hess (43:28)
Another substantial documentary, this covers the built-up to the film’s premiere at Sundance, the stir it caused there, its subsequent success and the reaction to the film of the director’s family and the people of Preston, Idaho, who even held a ‘Napoleon Dynamite Festival’ in its honour.
The original 5 deleted scenes and outtakes from the last edition are included here, each with a commentary by Hess, Heder and Coon (and very worthwhile they are too), but are supplemented here by a further six scenes plus a deleted scene from Peluca, that became the inspiration for the dance sequence at the finale of Napoleon Dynamite.
An Interview with Jory Weitz (13:06) introduces the casting process, which includes screentests for Tina Majorino (Deb) (2:20), Efren Ramirez (Pedro) (2:16), and Haylie Duff (0:38).
Original short film ‘Peluca’ (8:47)
Jared Hess’s 2002 Film School short film is a prototype version of Napoleon Dynamite using many of the same scenes, locations and dialogue. It made in 2 days for $500 on badly processed black & white 16mm film, but this still looks good and is reminiscent of Clerks. It comes with an optional commentary by Hess, Heder and Coon.
Napoleon and Pedro sightings
This is a fine and very funny selection of promos and appearances and includes Napoleon Dynamite as a Random VJ on MTV’s TRL (5:01), in a Batman skit for the 2005 MTV Movie Awards (5:57), Jon Heder introducing Saturday Night Live (3:58) and various other random TV and ad appearances.
MTV promo spots
These are 13 half-minute TV spots used on MTV to promote the film.
The Wedding of the Century (3:47)
The cast were re-united for the film’s epilogue (watch out for it after the film’s end credits - I missed it in the theatrical showing). This featurette shows behind the scene of it being made.
This contains 43 colour stills from the film.
You probably wouldn’t like Napoleon Dynamite. Trust me. It’s not your normal kind of comedy film. Don’t listen to all those people who go on and on that it’s the funniest film they have ever seen and proceed to quote lines that are clearly not at all funny - at least not the way your friends tell it. You’d only have high expectations and be disappointed. Bearing that in mind, you still should still watch it anyway, maybe even a few times just to be sure. And you never know, you could also be one of those people who find Napoleon Dynamite one of the laugh-out loud funniest, original, endlessly rewatchable, never-get-tired-of-quoting films there has been for a long, long time. As you can judge by the other reviews of the film on DVD Times linked below however, it’s a love it or hate it film – but the chances are that if you love it, it will be one of your favourite films - so you owe it to yourself to at least give it a chance.
For those of you who have an edition of the film on DVD, I’m sorry to tell you that this new edition is essential. Although there is no great improvement in the picture quality, none is really required, but it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a second disc of extra features as much as this, containing numerous funny outtakes and deleted scenes, interesting documentaries and enough TV spots and appearances to satisfy any Napoleon Dynamite completist. This is one film that merits all the supporting material that can be found.