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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 movienote 

Napoleon Dynamite is a 2004 independent movie directed by Jared Hess and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, Paramount Pictures, and MTV Films. It's 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, it's a very intelligent and optimistic portrayal of high school life.

The eponymous Napoleon is not just a 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. Early on, Napoleon meets new student Pedro, and the two of them begin searching for dates for the upcoming school dance, where Pedro sees a flyer for the school election and 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.

The movie is 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.

In 2012, an Animated Adaptation aired on Fox, lasting only six episodes; the trope page for the cartoon series can be found here.

IDW published a Napoleon Dynamite comic book series with Napoleon in his senior year.

Napoleon Dynamite provides examples of:

  • Accidental Pervert: Uncle Rico is a borderline case; some of his conversations with teenage girls come across like a child molester, especially when he's selling his bust-enhancement product.
    Rico: You know, Deborah, you have... striking features. Such a soft face should be complimented with a... soft body.
    Deb: Mr. Rico?
    Rico: My friends and clients, they call me... "Uncle Rico."
  • 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: A downplayed example. 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. In fact, since lion and tiger genes aren't exactly compatible with one another, ligers tend to have genetic defects which lead experts to discourage trying to breed for ligers.
  • 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", which actually makes sense as the town they filmed in (Preston, Idaho) really was like that, since significant portions of Utah and Idaho (specifically, the more rural and Mormon-dominated areas) are notorious for being 10-15 years "behind the curve" in regards to popular culture of almost any sort. Rural areas of the U.S. still often use dial-up internet, as the broadband providers find it unprofitable to expand out there.
  • The Benchwarmer: Uncle Rico is a washout who spends all his time pining for his Glory Days on his high school football team. But the more he talks about the good old days, the clearer it becomes that he never got to play any games. Rico's convinced that if the coach had put him in at the crucial game in 1982, their team could have gone all the way to state finals, and he could have had a career as a pro player.
  • 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.
  • Break the Haughty: Rico gets some sweet karma for manipulating Deb into turning against Napoleon using advertising for his breast enhancement product: Getting caught trying to sell that same product to Starla and even modeling how big her bust could get RIGHT as Rex walked in. Probably the only reason he escaped with only a broken arm to show for it was because Starla stepped in and convinced Rex Rico hadn't actually done anything.
  • Call a Smeerp a "Rabbit": The liger is a real animal, but the creature that Napoleon draws (and claims has magical powers) looks more like a manticore.note 
  • Camp Straight: Kip, whose effeminacy is seemingly down to his nerdiness, given he spends so much time chatting up girls online.
  • Catchphrase:
    • Napoleon has "Gosh!" "(Friggin') Idiot!"
    • Kip has "Jeez".
  • Chekhov's Gag: When Deb tries to sell her glamour photo 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:
    • At one point Napoleon mentions practicing his dance moves. He ends up doing a self-choreographed dance in support of Pedro, set to "Canned Heat" by Jamiroquai.
    • 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.
  • Crossover: The advertising team did one with box office rival Alien vs. Predator.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: When Pedro organizes an event featuring a piñata make to resemble his opponent in the Class President election, he is admonished by the administration, saying that what he did was not only wrong, but shocking. Pedro later tells Deb that in Mexico, political opponents do that all the time.
  • Dull Surprise: Napoleon's default expression. Kip, Deb, and Pedro to a lesser extent.
  • Dumbass Has a Point: Despite giving an, at best, mediocre martial arts demonstration, Rex demands that all students use the "buddy system" and travel in pairs, which legitimately is good advice for self-defense.
    • Kip tries to defend Rico’s idiotic football video when Napoleon calls it the “worst thing of all time” by pointing out that no one can ever know that for sure. It’s a pretty weak retort, but also technically true.
  • 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. Along with the Bust Must+ shilling, this is about as racy as the movie gets.
  • 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.
  • Good-Times Montage: The ending of the movie after the election shows a montage of what everyone is up to. Kip and LaFawnduh were shown boarding a bus together, Grandma reuniting with Tina after being released from the hospital, Uncle Rico meeting a woman on a bicycle, and Pedro and his family celebrating his victory. The montage ends with Napoleon and Deb reconciling and playing tetherball.
  • 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.
  • Hated Hometown: Averted. None of the characters seem like they dislike living in Preston and even Kip brings his girlfriend to the town rather than moving out to her. Most of the characters seem very content with their small town life, and have no plans of leaving which is in stark contrast to most media featuring such communities.
  • 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 filmmakers claimed 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 seemed. 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 and 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 and 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: She only goes to the dance with him because her mom made her go as his pity date, but as soon as they get there Trisha ditches him to go hang out with her real friends.
    • 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 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. Moreover, his belief he could've been a star football player is nothing more than a delusion.
  • Jerkass: Summer, Uncle Rico, and the Principal.
  • Jerk Jock: Don, who gives Napoleon a hard time in school.
  • Kitschy Local Commercial: Rex Kwon Do's advertisement for his dojo.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: After scamming numerous residents of Preston, which eventually descends into full-on sexual harassment when he starts offering "herbal enhancers" to women (and ruining Napoleon's friendship with Deb, no less), Uncle Rico is beaten up by Rex when he tries to persuade Starla to buy some.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 he’s 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. Don is more openly antagonistic towards Napoleon in some deleted scenes which is probably 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.
  • Practically Different Generations: Napolean, a high school junior, with his older brother Kip (who is 32 years old).
  • 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.
  • Quirky Town: The town of Preston, Idaho is depicted to be as such. Being a farming community that appears to be stuck in the eighties.
  • 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 and Idaho (specifically, the more rural and Mormon-dominated areas) are notorious for being 10-15 years "behind the curve" in regards to popular culture of almost any sort.
  • Scenery Porn: The town it's filmed in (Preston, Idaho) makes it this for some.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely:
    • Double Subverted overall. 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.
  • Special Effects Failure: invoked Clearly, Rex didn't exactly enlist Industrial Light & Magic for his commercial.
  • Stereotypical Nerd: Napoleon isn't particularly smart or hard-working, but has all the cornerstones of a stereotypical nerd - No Social Skills, awkward posture, mouth breathing, eccentric habits, thick, ugly glasses, crappy fashion sense...
  • Stylistic Suck: Anything Napoleon draws, but special mention goes to his portrait of Trisha:
    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)
    • Summer and Trisha’s dance to Larger than Life is pretty good for a bunch of high school kids. But nowhere near the standard of a professional actor and singer like Haylie Duff.
  • Summon Bigger Fish: "Pedro offers you his protection."
  • Terrible Artist: Napoleon again. See Stylistic Suck.
  • 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.
  • Two Decades Behind: While the movie takes place in the mid-2000s, it seems very reminiscent of the 1980s. Truth in Television as large parts of rural Idaho really are that far behind the times.
    • Kip's use of online dating and Uncle Rico buying his time machine off the internet though do ground the film in its early 2000's setting despite the rest of the anachronisms in the film. Kip's make-over in the later part of the film looks humorous, in a town with mostly 80's style clothes to have Kip walking around in stereotypical 2000's "gangsta" clothes at the end.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Quite a few. "Bodaggit", "decroded", etc.
  • Weakness Turns Her On: After the fact that Rico had just suffered a major Break the Haughty pratfall, this is probably the second biggest reason his ex comes back to him in the end, probably having heard what happened to him and then noticing his arm in a sling and cast.
  • 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.
    • She may be at Pedro's party congratulating him for winning the school election but it's hard to tell from the way it's photographed.
  • 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.
    • 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 It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia)
  • Your Mom: "Your mom goes to college!"


Video Example(s):


Napoleon's Trisha Sketch

"It's probably the best drawing I've ever done." -Napoleon

How well does it match the trope?

5 (4 votes)

Example of:

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