One of my most vivid memories from middle school was spending the night with a couple of my friends and sitting down to watch Napoleon Dynamite after hearing so much about through friends at school and general advertising. It had a very strange aura about it and it seemed like something that was new and fresh and exciting. This recollection of course is completely retrospective; 13-year-old me wasn’t having these thoughts exactly, but looking back this is what I make of it. Immediately after watching the movie, it became a staple in my friends and I’s vernacular. We would constantly quote it, re-watch it, and talk about it. It became a huge hit and at the time and I personally didn’t get it. I thought it was funny when my friends would quote it, but I thought the movie itself was just stupid.
Jump forward thirteen years: while working at the video store, I notice that we have a copy so I decide to put it on. It was a slow day so I could pay attention to it while it played. Shortly after I put it on, a kid around the age I was when I first saw the movie, immediately recognized it (admittedly it is an extremely recognizable one) and laughed. As I watched, I noticed the extremely well-crafted piece of cinema that I had overlooked as a youngster.
The story of the titular character is played out for laughs, but as I watched at the video store it became clear that it is a very smart story about a high school kid who faces a plethora of real-life struggles and ultimately fights against them to remain true to himself. I sat down to watch it all the way through at home a couple days after I watched most of it at work. What stood out to me about Napoleon’s story and his interactions with his friends and bullies is the way he never changes and never hides who he is despite constant torment. This is an extremely important message and one that I think gets overlooked by many who watch the movie for its “stupid” humor.
The technical construction of the film through shot composition and editing is impressive. The film takes place in rural Idaho, and the landscape is prominently on display as a backdrop for the film. The vast, mountainous backdrops add to the theme of Napoleon’s isolation as an outsider from the rest of the kids his age due to his strange behavior, interests, and family dynamic. The editing of the film is used successfully in crafting humorous moments such as when Uncle Rico throws a steak at Napoleon as he and Pedro ride by on a bike, but it also does a very good job setting up Napoleon’s perspective and worldview for the audience as the cuts transition between locations, but maintain conversations, such as when Pedro shows Napoleon his bike.
Personally, I had written off Napoleon Dynamite as just a stupid comedy for over a decade and after revisiting it, it has solidified a place among my favorite films. It has a unique style that adds to the story and characters, but unfortunately it suffers from that style by setting itself up to be written off by people like myself who don’t pay attention the first time around. But those who do, or who revisit the film with new eyes, will see the genius on the screen.
– By Kirk Yoshonis