Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Screenshot from Napoleon Dynamite

By Michael Davis

The tenth anniversary of “Napoleon Dynamite” is special for a number of reasons, both on a cultural level, and for me, on a personal one.

The commercial success of the film sparked a tremendous amount of similar films, all hoping to catch the secondhand success of Jared Hess’ first film. Made on a micro-budget of $400,000, the film grossed $46,000,000, making it a pop culture phenomenon in the early 2000s. After his role as the titular character, Jon Heder’s star skyrocketed up into the cultural zeitgeist. For the next few years, his name was seen on the posters of other mainstream comedies. He continues to act, but no character he has portrayed since has come to mean more to pop culture, or is more synonymous with derision to those not in on the movie’s unusual brand of offbeat charm and humor.

When the film came out, I was 15 years old, and right smack dab in the throes of what Napoleon experiences in the film. On a small level, the social awkwardness that Napoleon endured was similar to what many of my friends and I were going through. You could say that “Napoleon Dynamite” existed as a mirror to our own lives, without the tether balls or llamas.

The movie crept into our daily lives, even into philosophical discussions with teachers. During a normal day in my Spanish class, we began to talk about the success of the film. One thing that I do remember at that time was how kids who had never been interested in talking about films started at that moment, all because of this movie. It was like my own world of movie-loving paradise had leaked into the atmosphere and we were all breathing its fumes.

During our discussion, my Spanish teacher plainly described why the movie was so successful. “Napoleon is not afraid of being himself. He has embraced his individuality, and he doesn’t apologize for it,” she said.

It is a rose-colored view of the film, obviously. But, that doesn’t make it any less true. And when you examine the moments in the film even further, one can see that Napoleon is never less than true to himself. He is bullied by the high school students around him, but he does not let them change his view about himself. He continues his pursuit of his own “brand” of happiness.

The friendship he has with Pedro is the kind of relationship we all want to have with each other. Napoleon’s final dance sequence is an expression of his loyalty to his friend. It also doesn’t hurt for the movie’s sake that the dance itself is wacky and full of spontaneous energy.

Ultimately, the movie’s legacy is rooted both in its cult status and the cultural backlash that it soon received. Unfortunately, I believe it was destined for that position. The movie’s humor acknowledges the subtlety of everyday life, while also emphasizing the uniqueness of its main character. “Napoleon Dynamite” is sprinkled with odd and endearing characters, not all of which work or are funny. The movie can be slow and meander. Combine that with its unusual sense of humor, the movie sparked a strong contingent of people that hated it for its perceived treacly nature. It was the kind of moviemaking that just two years later made “Little Miss Sunshine” a hit, but which also provided somewhat of the same cultural blowback.

My opinion of the film is somewhat shaded by the time in my life in which the movie existed. It is not one of my favorite films, but I sincerely appreciate the depth of its uniqueness and its endearing spirit. The positive messages are there, if you look for them, and you don’t have to enjoy tater tots to appreciate the warmness of the movie.