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.


Add Comment

The 10 Best Presidential Clips From The Simpsons
Mark Millar The Magic Order Comic
Why We’ll Be Watching Netflix’s The Magic Order
game of thrones emilia clarke
Which Game of Thrones Actor Will Be the Most Successful Post Series?
Chrisley Knows Best
Why The Show “Growing up Chrisley” is Bad for Television
Crawl
Can New Alligator Movie “Crawl” Make up For All Bad Alligator Horror Movies?
apocalypse now memorial day movie
Five Awesome Movies to Watch on Memorial Day
Pattinson The Batman
Why We Think Robert Pattinson Will Thrive as The Batman
Chris Rock Pookie
Why We Love Chris Rock Doing a Saw Spinoff Film
Janet Jackson
Five Actresses Who Should Play Janet Jackson in a Biopic
Best Room Wins
10 Things You Didn’t Know about “Best Room Wins”
Garner Movies
20 Things You Didn’t Know about Jennifer Garner
10 Things You Didn’t Know about Norah O’Donnell
Alan Moore Comic Book Writer
10 Things You Didn’t Know about Alan Moore
Squirrel Girl
Why Squirrel Girl Deserves Her Own Featured Film
10 Things You Never Knew about Batman’s Logo
10 Things You Didn’t Know about Doctor Strange’s Dormammu
What Exactly is the Goku Ultra Instinct Form?
20 Things You Didn’t Know about Goblin Slayer
The History and Evolution of AnimeJapan
10 Things You Didn’t Know about Astra Lost in Space
Georgia Setting
Is The Best ‘Walking Dead’ Story In A Video Game?
marvels iron man vr hero banner
Five Upcoming Superhero Video Games We’re Psyched For
Final Fantasy VII
Square Enix Finally Gives a Final Fantasy VII Update
Star Citizen
Will Gamers Ever Get to Play Star Citizen?