Napoleon Dynamite Review

The song which plays over Napoleon Dynamite’s opening credits is a jangly number by the White Stripes which wouldn’t have seemed out of place on the soundtrack for Rushmore. It’s just one in a series of predecessors which spring to mind whilst watching this film – others include Ghost World, Election, Jeffrey Blitz’s documentary Spellbound, and the films of Aki Kaurismäki – yet crucially Napoleon Dynamite lacks all of these examples’ dramatic and emotional undertows. Its plot, if it can be described as such, simply pins together a number of moments in the life of the eponymous high school nerd – those in which he copes with the harassment of fellow pupils, and those in which he deals with his strange family life.

Given the film’s looseness it is unsurprising to find that Napoleon himself should be key to its success. Yet there’s a constant feeling that, having created this character, writers Jerusha and Jared Hess (who also serves as director) aren’t entirely sure what to do with him; at times it resembles one of those comic book spin-offs whereby so much effort has gone into casting the right leads that the actual narrative gets let behind. As such we have a work which isn’t so much episodic, but rather comprised wholly of vignettes.

Of course, anyone who has caught the trailer or seen a few clips will be aware that many of these can be very funny (in fact, the structure makes Napoleon Dynamite resemble, at times, nothing more than an extended trailer) yet it’s sorely lacking in other areas. Compare the deadpan performances to those which feature in Kaurismäki’s works and it becomes clear that any emotional side to the film is conspicuously missing. Likewise, it simply ambles through its scenes until reaching a suitable conclusion thereby missing out on the sour melancholy which made that other recent cult-in-the-making teen movie, Ghost World, so appealing.

It’s a shame because Napoleon Dynamite does prove a lead who should be able to lead the filmmakers into interesting areas. There’s an innocence to him which is immediately appealing, whilst Hess indulges him enough to allow us to feel strangely close to him, despite being in possession of some less than universal qualities (his “skills” include drawing warriors and, according to one of the deleted scenes, knowing “illegal ninja moves banned by the government”). Moreover, Napoleon is also afforded a certain timeless status courtesy of the odd blend of milieus in which he exists: on the one hand we have the comparatively newer sounds of the Backstreet Boys and Jamiroquai on the soundtrack (the latter put to especially fine use), yet there’s also an eighties fixation going on and an abundance of seventies fashions.

However, the lightness of the film makes it difficult to judge just how Hess perceives his lead character and where his intentions lie. Certainly, he could be as innocent about the whole thing as Napoleon himself, but then it’s hard not to detect an air of misanthropy (everyone is deluded to a greater or lesser degree) or to hear echoes of Don the jock’s mocking laughter. Sadly, any clarification is difficult to make, especially as Napoleon Dynamite doesn’t prove too respondent to repeat viewings.

The Disc

As a new film released by a major studio, Napoleon Dynamite looks and sounds as good as could be expected on disc. The film has been transferred anamorphically (at a ratio of 1.78:1), one which copes ably with Hess’ distinctive colour schemes and demonstrates no technical flaws. Indeed, the print is pleasingly clean and perfectly watchable. Much the same is true of the DD5.1 mix. Technically sound and demonstrating the requisite clarity, it poses no problems in providing both the dialogue and soundtrack.

Sadly the extras are decidedly disappointing and surprisingly lacklustre for such a new release. The commentary by Hess, actor Jon Hedar and producer Jeremy Coon is a dull affair riddled with in-jokes and mumbles which only offers interest when Hess discusses the film’s autobiographical qualities. Likewise, the featurette (which focuses on the scene which plays after the end credits) is vague and can only offer brisk soundbites over its three minute duration. Indeed, it is only the deleted scenes which deserve a place on the disc, though it is perhaps indicative of the film as a whole that whilst amusing they neither add nor take anything away.

All special features, including the commentary, come with optional English, French, German or Spanish subtitles.

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