There’s something strangely anachronistic about Napoleon Dynamite that helps it avoid the usual pratfalls of nostalgia. Recently there have been a string of articles across the web celebrating the anniversary of an assortment of questionable films – Speed, The Mighty Ducks – all hinging on the writer’s relationship and/or fondness to the film-in-question as it was released. These write-ups work (if they do at all) not only because they celebrate a particular film, but more so because they remind the reader of a specific period in time and by proxy a point in their own lives. Hit the jump, to continue reading.
Speed and The Mighty Ducks are very much products of the 90s, from a single line of Keanu’s dialogue to the dress-choice of a young Joshua Jackson. These films become time capsules to the years in which they originated. When you read an article on Speed, it not only brings back whatever positive traits you feel the movie possesses, but also to 90’s action cinema in general – a simpler time when a big budget Hollywood film could occur in pretty much one location with mostly practical effects.
Nowadays something like Speed would seem like a quaint little indie – and that, in effect, gives the film its power. It’s a product of a time long since past, and like the past it becomes a paradox, both tangible yet intangible. Tangible – in that you can watch Speed any time you want on any device of your choosing (DVD, Blu-ray, online, iTunes…); intangible – in that you can never really experience Speed again – partly because you’ve already seen it [X] number of times before, but also because they just don’t make movies like that any more. This is all to say that the end result triggers something akin to nostalgia, a vivid memory of a day past – forever remembered but never to be lived again.
This past week Napoleon Dynamite celebrated its ten-year-anniversary – but the reception (at least online) was curiously mixed. Why did Speed and The Mighty Ducks receive such magnanimous attention, whereas Napoleon Dynamite met with snooty indifference? It’s not as simple as a mere qualitative judgment — [A] is greater than [B] or vice versa. The problem with Napoleon Dynamite is that it doesn’t fit in with any particular time period and thus avoids the trappings of nostalgia that aid so many equal or lesser films.
Released in June 2004 opposite The Stepford Wives remake, Garfield: The Movie and The Chronicles of Riddick, Napoleon Dynamite could already be marked as an anomaly. A small indie film from a first time writer-director without any recognizable stars – it exists in a vacuum far removed from all the tent-pole sequels, remakes and adaptations cluttering around it. On the outset, though, the film appears to be fairly straightforward – at least in terms of plot. A coming of age story focusing on an awkward teen’s attempts to ‘find’ himself. That basic template has been used for a plethora of films for seemingly forever. Hell – John Hughes even made a career off of it. But never has such banality seemed as odd as it does in Napoleon Dynamite.
This as it turns out would be the film’s greatest asset – the ability to make even the most familiar of plotlines and characters into something completely foreign and removed. As played by Jon Heder, the titular Napoleon Dynamite, with his affectless tone and manner, is less prototypical teen and more bizarre alien from another world. You may relate to Napoleon’s plight – his inability to fit in or woo the girl or fix his dysfunctional family – but it’s much harder to relate to him as a character and person. He’s not the everyman whose shoes you’re supposed to fill alla other teen film leads Lane Meyer (Better Off Dead) or Veronica Sawyer (Heathers). Instead much of the humor in the film comes at the expense of Napoleon. This is a character that gives a current events report about the Loch Ness Monster, who stashes tater tots as a snack, who doodles lightning-beaming unicorns, who stages an elaborate impromptu dance to ‘Canned Heat’… He’s a character that will act in direct opposition to whatever the perceived norm is. And as such he becomes a singular character at the expense of any correlating empathy the audience might have.
The film itself takes an “arm’s distance” approach to Napoleon, much of it shot in long static wide shots. This leaves the viewer a spectator to much of Napoleon’s antics. Take for instance the climatic dance number of the film. As Napoleon dances to Jamiroquai in front of the entire school, the camera remains perched away – static – capturing Napoleon in a full body wide. This puts the viewer – not with the lead character up on the stage but with the audience watching him perform. In fact, often the scene will cut away from Napoleon to close-ups of the various high-school kids looking at him, further cementing the viewer into the high school audience’s vantage.
There’s a discrepancy between reality and Napoleon Dynamite, extending even to the smallest details of the film. In a normal run-of-the-mill teen comedy, the nerd is usually pelted with a football or soccer ball or [insert physical sport’s related object of choice here]; in Napoleon Dynamite, he gets hit in the face with a steak. Even the look of the film – all warm colors with a preponderance of greens, reds and bright blues – denote a setting far removed from reality. For all intensive purposes, Napoleon Dynamite might as well be a science fiction film about an alien (who looks a lot like a human) struggling in some foreign country (that looks a lot like Idaho).
Compare with the other 2004-released teen-film Mean Girls – with its topical humor, traditional lead, and more naturalistic & conventional film coverage – to see just how (for lack of a better word) strange Napoleon Dynamite truly is. Whereas Mean Girls is unequivocally rooted in the early 2000s, Napoleon Dynamite doesn’t easily fit into any particular point in time. There’s nothing about the film that would tell you it was shot and released around 2004. There isn’t any topical humor or references to then current events. Most characters in the film speak in heightened monotones – not particularly representative of the speech patterns of any class during the early 2000s or any time for that matter.
Watching the film nowadays, there’s no hint that Napoleon Dynamite is a decade old – because it simply has no roots in the early 21st century. So the nostalgia that helps films fixed in a particular era grow in the minds of the people who have matured up alongside it doesn’t apply here. Napoleon Dynamite remains on an island of its own choosing, free of the imbuing reminiscence that plagues culture. Ten years since, Napoleon Dynamite remains just that: a movie – no less and no more.
**This article was inspired by a screening and live Q&A of Napoleon Dynamite this past week with filmmaker Jared Hess and star Jon Heder in attendance.