Film / Napoleon Dynamite

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Kid on Bus: What are you gonna do today, Napoleon?
Napoleon: Whatever I feel like I wanna do, gosh!
— Opening lines of the movie. He's not kidding.

An independent movie directed by Jared Hess and distributed by Fox Searchlight. Napoleon Dynamite is a subdued and sweet little cult film, telling the story of a trio of friends and their attempts to overcome their status as social outcasts. The film became legendary for making audiences laugh at The Sundance Film Festival, and subsequently became a huge hit with the teenage crowd of the 2000s, resulting in a cult following similar to teen movies of the 1980s. The atmosphere of Napoleon Dynamite is peculiar, with downplayed humor, quiet absurdism, largely unrelatable and awkward characters, and deliberately stilted dialogue — but at the film's core is a very intelligent and optimistic portrayal of high school life.

The eponymous Napoleon is not just a Hollywood Nerd — he's a real genuine dork, not particularly skilled at anything, angry at the world, incapable of even the most basic friendly conversation, and a mouth breather to boot. He has exactly one facial expression. People don't like him and he doesn't like people.

The film has its setups and payoffs, but is very much a Random Events Plot: anything that would be a big deal in most high school films is very deliberately downplayed. The first half of the story has Napoleon meeting new student Pedro, and the two of them begin searching for dates for the upcoming school dance. In the second half of the movie, Pedro decides to run for class president with Napoleon as his campaign manager. A running theme is a mild quasi-romance between Napoleon and Deb, a girl who is even less socially capable than Napoleon.

Additionally, Napoleon and his unemployed brother Kip are forced to host their Uncle Rico, a former high school football player trying to find a way to travel back to 1982 so he can win the big game and become an NFL star. Kip, meanwhile, joins in Uncle Rico's various get-rich-quick schemes to be able to meet up with LaFawnduh, a girl from Detroit he talks to in an online chat room on dialup.

The movie aims to be as deadpan awkward as possible, and the results have caused quite a bit of Hype Backlash for those who expected a regular teen comedy. It was the breakout role of Jon Heder, who plays the title character and has gone on to mainstream roles alongside stars like Will Ferrell and Billy Bob Thornton. The filmmakers themselves, Idaho natives, went on to make Nacho Libre with Jack Black.

It was announced in 2010 that an Animated Adaptation was in production for Fox, with the original cast returning to voice the characters. A trailer for the show can be watched here. The show premiered on January 15, 2012 and was cancelled after 6 episodes; the trope page for the cartoon series can be found here.


Napoleon Dynamite provides examples of:

  • Adorkable: The title character - especially during the big dance scene.
  • Advertised Extra: Diedrich Bader has two scenes and receives top billing but compare some of the other characters like Summer played by Fake Guest Star Haylie Duff who has much more screen time than him.
  • Alpha Bitch: Averted. The worst thing Summer Wheatley does is refuse Pedro's offer to go to the dance and the "Chiminy-changas" crack she makes about him.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: The Liger is a real animal but not bred for its skills with magic.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Napoleon's awkwardness goes way beyond the level of your average unpopular kid, and is just packed full of odd quirks and ticks. Many fans and critics of the film believe he has Asperger's syndrome .
  • Anachronism Stew: The opening credits clearly shows Napoleon's school ID reading "2004-2005", but the plot lulls you into thinking it's the 80's (with the music and the characters' clothes). Then it jolts you out of it when Summer plays a Backstreet Boys song — though Kip having an internet relationship also seemed to contrast the 80's atmosphere... albeit with 90s-era dial-up. This was intentional, to make the setting/characters seem "backwards" when in fact the story takes place in the present. When Jared and Jerusha Hess were asked when their story was set, they responded "Idaho."
  • Awesome McCool Name: Napoleon Dynamite. (Fun fact: Elvis Costello was using "Napoleon Dynamite" as a pseudonym nearly twenty years before this movie came out. This nearly got the film into legal hot water.)
  • Big Lipped Alligator Moment: In-universe: Napoleon's dance sequence is completely unexplained. It is unrelated to any aspect of Pedro's campaign, style, or personality (which was, itself, very random). It does not respond to Summer's campaign promises by any means. It comes out of nowhere and makes zero sense and has very little context. Everything goes quiet, and then - thunderous applause; Pedro wins. It's a rare justified BLAM- Napoleon only did it because he had no idea that he and Pedro were required to perform a skit, so he just did the first thing that popped into his head to stall for time. It works beautifully.
  • Black Comedy: The scene where the farmer shoots a cow just as a school bus full of children stops on the street.
  • Catch Phrase: "Gosh!" "(Friggin') Idiot!"
  • Chekhov's Gag: When Deb tries to sell her hair salon services to Napoleon, she hands him a picture of a blond model to demonstrate what he could turn into. Napoleon later shows the picture to Pedro and lies that it's his ex-girlfriend from out of state.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Each of the food plates making up the opening credits are eaten during the course of the movie.
    • The dance instruction tape that Napoleon watches early in the movie (see Chekhov's Skill).
  • Chekhov's Gunman: While teaching his self-defense class, Rex shows the students a picture of his wife Starla. Later in the movie, Rex comes home just as Uncle Rico is trying to sell Starla "bust enhancers". It doesn't end well.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Napoleon practicing his dance moves.
    • Pedro's cousins returning to intimidate a bully.
  • Composite Character: Pedro is a combination of two characters, Pedro and his cousin Gabriel, from the original short film Peluca.
  • Cool Car: Pedro's cousins drive a cherry-red convertible with adjustable hydraulics. They later have "Vote for Pedro" emblazoned on the side.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Everyone.
  • Credits-Brand Products: In the opening credits and DVD menus.
  • Dull Surprise: Napoleon's default expression.
  • Face Palm: Done by a member of LaFawnduh's family in the post-credits scene when LaFawnduh and Kip marry.
  • Fake Guest Star: Haylie Duff as Summer among others who's in quite a bit of the movie despite not getting top billing. Compare with Advertised Extra Diedrich Bader who does and is in far less of the movie.
  • Foot Popping: When Kip and LaFawnduh first meet in person and kiss.
  • Footsie Under the Table: Kip and LaFawnduh.
  • Giant Poofy Sleeves: Deb's prom dress. Napoleon compliments her on them and she replies that she made them herself.
  • Glory Days: Uncle Rico had his glory days in high school football... as a bench warmer.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: While waiting for the school bus one morning, across the road Napoleon sees a farmer preparing to shoot a cow. Just before he does, the bus drives into the scene and Napoleon doesn't see the shot. The kids on the bus, however, do, and scream.
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck!: Elevated to an art form with both Napoleon's self-Bowdlerization ("What the flip was grandma doing at the sand dunes?") and his made-up words ("Why don't you go eat a decroted piece of crap?")
  • Gratuitous Japanese: "Bow to your sensei!" Considering "sensei" is a pretty common loanword, this probably wouldn't be an example if Rex weren't such a blatant Eaglelander.
  • Groin Attack:
    • Uncle Rico orders a "time machine" that is simply a box with a handlebar to be inserted between a person's legs. Activating it just gives one an electric shock. The next day, Uncle Rico is shown walking gingerly.
    • When Pedro and Napoleon try out tricks on Pedro's bike, Napoleon's attempt causes the ramp he's on to collapse and the bike to hurt his crotch.
  • Hollywood Tone-Deaf: Kip's song in the post-credits scene. Oh my.
  • I Believe That You Believe It: As noted, the name "Napoleon Dynamite" was first used as a pseudonym by Elvis Costello. Despite this, the film makers say that they weren't aware of that and thought up the name on their own. Costello claimed Hess denied its true origin, and doesn't think it's a name that you'll ever come across twice.
    • The film makers claim that they heard a rambling homeless man call himself Napoleon Dynamite. It's a pretty plausible story that they heard it from someone else who knew about it and then assumed that the homeless guy made it up himself. Hey, it worked that way with Kurt Cobain and the deodorant "Teen Spirit" after all!
  • I Coulda Been a Contender!: Parodied with Uncle Rico's football dreams, which were nonexistent in the first place.
  • Informed Attribute: Napoleon hands these out like they're candy. Allegedly, he spent a summer in Alaska hunting wolverines with a 12-gauge shotgun, has wicked skills with a bo staff, keeps a pair of nunchuks in his locker, and kept getting pestered by one of his school's many gangs to join on the basis of his martial arts skills (of course we never see any evidence of such gangs whatsoever). He also claims to have tamed a "wild honeymoon stallion" and in the post credits scene, he shows up riding it. Whether or not he tamed it is still debatable, yet it makes you wonder whether all of his claims were as unfounded as they sounded. Crosses over into pathological liar territory, come to think of it...
    • In a deleted scene, he also claims to know "all the illegal ninja moves from the government". This, on top of Don being much meaner to him in these deleted segments, gives both Don & Napoleon a different characterization than you'd get from the theatrical cut of the movie - in this case, Napoleon says something so outlandish everyone within earshot would immediately disbelieve him, especially if he didn't whip one of these moves out right then & there, whereas the rest of the time he doesn't make claims anyone could reasonably expect him to prove right away. It also makes him a gigantic dork, more so than the movie without this scene.
    • How about the part where he claims the girl in Deb's sample photograph is his "old girlfriend from Oklahoma" who is so busy modeling she couldn't come to Preston for the upcoming school dance?
    • But then he complains to Pedro that he has no "SKILLS" that chicks would want in a guy, so he has no prospects for the dance. Pedro helpfully points out that he's good at drawing - which he absolutely isn't, by the way - and Napoleon sets about wooing Trisha with a hand-drawn portrait of her. It... goes about as well as you'd expect.
    • Kip claims to be training in the art of cage fighting. He does attempt to train in Rex Kwon Do, though.
    • He also claims to be "chatting online with babes all day", every day, and then to have snagged one as his girlfriend. Then we meet LaFawnduh and, on top of her being black while he's white, we unexpectedly see that he was right!
    • Averted by Napoleon himself by the end of the film with regard to his dancing, and when he shows up all sweaty and explains to LaFawnduh that he was "practicing some dance moves". Now he has something to brag about. Arguably, this is the movie's main conflict - him merely talking big and then finally getting to do so legitimately, with the school election being the catalyst that makes this possible.
  • Insistent Terminology: "My friends and colleagues, they call me Uncle Rico..."
  • Jaded Washout: Uncle Rico, but not so jaded that he can't delude himself into thinking time travel is an actual thing.
  • Jerkass: Uncle Rico and the Principal.
  • Jerk Jock: Don.
  • Lovable Nerd: Most of the protagonists, but Napoleon in particular.
  • Merchandise-Driven: Not made that way, but it was latched onto extremely fast. Almost every quote you could name from the movie appeared on a T-Shirt at some point.
    • And there is now merchandise backlash, e.g. t-shirts saying "Pedro lacks political experience", or "I voted for Pedro" with George W. Bush's face on it.
  • Mormon Cinema: Often considered an "honorary" Mormon film. Despite containing no explicitly Mormon themes, most of the production team was LDS and recently graduated from BYU, the film is squeaky-clean to the point of it being part of the humor, and many of the jokes make a lot more sense if one has a familiarity with Mormon culture.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: The whole point of the movie. Napoleon could be the poster-boy for this trope—especially his dancing—but other characters get their fair share, like the scene where LaFawnduh gets off the bus.
  • Nerd: In an odd case, Napoleon isn't even particularly smart or hard-working, but has all the cornerstones of a stereotypical nerd - poor social skills, awkward posture, mouth breathing, eccentric habits, thick, ugly glasses, crappy fashion sense...
  • Nipple and Dimed: Cow nipples that is. Pedro examines them as part of a test on food inspection.
  • No Antagonist: Uncle Rico is probably the closest thing this film has to a villain, but hes more of a delusional douchebag than evil.
    • Also Summer Wheatley and her boyfriend, who would have the role of Alpha Bitch and Jerk Jock in any other movie, but here are pretty realistic high schoolers whose only crime is being dismissive to our protagonists.
      • Except in the deleted scenes where Don is more openly antagonistic towards Napoleon. Probably explains why they were cut...
  • Odd Friendship: Business-savvy redneck Rico and technology-loving loser Kip. Also Napoleon and Pedro, to a lesser degree.
  • Parental Abandonment: It's never explained why Napoleon and Kip are living with their grandmother and not their parents.
  • Playing Gertrude: Sandy Martin plays the grandmother of Napoleon and Kip, despite being less than 30 years older than Jon Heder or Aaron Ruell. Jon Gries, who plays their uncle, is also just 7 years younger than her, though it's unknown whether or not he's her son.
  • Poirot Speak: "We're going to put some santitos, el Santo Niño de Atocha is a good one".
  • Power Crystal: They're the power source for the useless, mail-order time machine, which doesn't do anything, except shock the groin area.
  • Pretty Fly for a White Guy: Kip. He manages to score with a black woman, who gives him a gangster makeover.
  • Put Me In, Coach!: Uncle Rico of Napoleon Dynamite wants to invoke this... through Time Travel. He's spent the last twenty-two years lamenting that his high coach left him on the bench, and wants to go back to 1982 for a second chance at the big game, thinking its victory will make him into a famous football player.
  • Random Events Plot: The time machine, the school dance, and the election have nothing to do with each other. They just happen.
  • Retro Universe: Both in-universe and in Real Life. As it turns out, the town they filmed in (Preston, Idaho) really was like that, since significant portions of Utah & Idaho (specifically, the more rural & Mormon-dominated areas) are notorious for being 10-15 years "behind the curve" in regards to popular culture of almost any sort.
  • Sassy Black Woman: LaFawnduh is downplayed due to lack of lines. She has the look but is otherwise nice and non-sassy.
  • Scenery Porn: The town it's filmed in (Preston, Idaho) makes it this for some.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Subverted. Deb spends the whole movie looking somewhat dorky, which can mainly be attributed to her silly hairstyle and bad fashion sense. When she shows up at the school dance in a self-made dress it only makes matters worse. She does however look genuinely pretty by the end of the movie when she sports a more conventional hairdo and, more importantly, smiles for the first time in the entire movie.
    • Subverted with Kip, He probably looks his best at his wedding in a fashionable suit and marginally more stylish glasses, but is still so unbelievably nerdy that it doesn't make a difference.
  • Shmuck Bait: The "time machine" couldn't be any more this.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Most of the dialogue features this in some capacity.
  • Stylistic Suck: The hideous portrait of Trisha drawn by Napoleon, and anything drawn by him in general. Like the Liger.
    Napoleon: It took me like 3 hours to finish the shading on your upper lip. It's probably the best drawing I've ever done."
    (Trisha cringes)
  • Summon Bigger Fish: "Pedro offers you his protection."
  • The Unintelligible: Lyle the farmer. He has actual lines, but they're almost impossible to understand due to the actor's mumbling speech. You can bet no one knew he said he found some Shoshone arrowheads in a pig pen until they either read this here or turned on the subtitles.
  • Testosterone Poisoning: Rex is insanely macho:
    "The strength...of a GRIZZLY! The reflexes...of a PUMA! And the wisdom...of a MAN!"
  • Too Quirky to Lose: This whole movie but particularly the climax is an example of this trope.
  • Triple Nipple: Or Quintuple, regarding cows. Apparently cows should only have four.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Quite a few. "Bodaggit", "decroded", etc.
  • Wearing a Flag on Your Head: Rex wears a red white and blue bandanna with stars AND American flag pants.
  • What Does She See in Him?: In the post-credits scene, all of LaFawnduh's relatives are clearly in shock and disbelief at the fact that she's marrying Kip.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Pedro is shown at one point to have a sister. She turns up in one scene where she mistakenly takes Napoleon's call for Pedro, but then never shows up again.
  • What the Fu Are You Doing?: Kip's "cage fighting skills" vs. Rex. Rex himself.
  • When He Smiles: It takes flipping FOREVER for Pedro to register ANY kind of facial expression, let alone smile, but when he does, it's beautiful.
    • Similarly with Deb; when she finally smiles at the end of the movie, you realize how pretty she actually is.
  • Wimp Fight: Every fight in the movie: Napoleon vs. Uncle Rico, Napoleon vs. Kip, and Kip vs. Rex... they're all pretty pathetic.
    • To be fair, the last one was just Rex trying to demonstrate a technique. Rex vs. Uncle Rico, while not shown onscreen, averts this trope, and Rico ends up with an broken arm and nose.
    • "I think you ripped my mole off!"
  • Younger Than They Look: Much of the cast.
    • Averted with Sandy Martin (Grandma), who looks older than her age, 54, in the movie (though this was most likely due to make-up, considering she looks slightly younger in other shows like Always Sunny)
  • Your Mom: "Your mom goes to college!"

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