Napoleon Dynamite: The Cult Movie That Could

Fourteen years ago, the Sundance Film Festival was witness to 95 minutes that would change the world. Napoleon Dynamite chronicled the life of an awkward teenager struggling to find his place in the world of rural Idaho. The titular character is chronically misunderstood, beset on all sides by classmates that mock him, a llama that won’t eat her food, an uncle that just won’t get off his case, and lips that hurt real bad, gosh. And yet, Napoleon persisted.

He fights through preps, prisses, and the general populace, unwavering in his love of ligers, warriors, and sweet dance moves. In the end, he helps his best friend Pedro become class president, gets rid of Uncle Rico, and finally finds a tetherball partner. The success of the movie was almost as strange as the film itself.

When star Jon Heder and director Jared Hess were film students at Brigham Young, they made a nine-minute short film called Peluca. Jon Heder Seth, an awkward teenager struggling to find his place in…oh, you get it. Peluca met such a warm reception that they dropped out film school to adapt it into a feature film.

And what a film it was. Napoleon Dynamite was simultaneously fresh and familiar. Nearly every line entered the social lexicon (almost everyone I knew adopted his Grandma’s improper Spanish pronunciation any time they ate a “danged quesadilla”).  Stores began selling replicas of his flippin’ sweet thrift store t-shirts. Moon boots were in high demand. The most devoted of us learned every step of his dance to “Canned Heat.”

It’s hardly the type of movie you’d expect to become a cultural phenomenon. It lacks much of a narrative thread, focusing instead on barely-noteworthy vignettes from the lives of the characters. It has no discernible time period: Uncle Rico won’t let go of 1982 (he even bought a piece of crap time machine, remember), but he’s not alone. Much of the characters are still tied to the 80s, even though his ID is for the 2004-2005 school year. John Swihart’s organ-and-drum-machine score is as tragically un-hip as the hero of the film himself.

While it was hardly a flop (it broke $46 million at the box office), the theatrical release didn’t attract much attention. But with the DVD release, it spread like wildfire. That winter, it was the only movie most of my friends watched. We could even quote the commentary. For the next year or so, the movie was inescapable, constantly quoted and rewatched across my college campus.

Over the years that followed, a number of attempts to recapture its success fell flat. Nacho Libre was enjoyable, but failed to capture the same earnestness that made Napoleon such a classic. Jon Heder had a brief foray into mainstream films, where he struggled to escape his own bespectacled shadow. In 2012, the original cast reprised their roles for an animated series, which lasted a mere six episodes.

But the film itself, even a decade and a half later, still retains all of its charm. I find myself impulsively reciting lines. Rewatching it feels like getting coffee with an old friend, cracking the same inside jokes as ever, just as funny now as they were.

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