I’ve always been fascinated by Napoleon Dynamite. Shot on a shoestring budget with a cast of unknowns, the film was the indie breakout sensation of summer 2004. It grossed $44 million, but that number doesn’t quite capture just how all-encompassing the Dynamite cult was for perhaps six months, if you were a college student or a high school student with an older brother or a twentysomething with a little sister. Everyone could quote the movie backwards. Ligers regularly came up in conversations that had nothing to do with wildlife. In hindsight, the film was astoundingly well-timed, reflecting a whole host of mid-00s cultural revolutions: The reappropriation of ’80s music by hipster culture, the rise of geek culture, the simultaneous rise of shameless geek-baiting merchandise. Relatively speaking, not too many people were on Facebook in summer 2004, but I think it would be fair to call Napoleon Dynamite the first social-media megahit: The comedy was entirely composed of reverse-ironic non-joke stupid humor, with lots of dialogue that would have been retweetable if Twitter had existed in those primordial days.
The fact that Napoleon Dynamite was terrible shouldn’t matter, since most things that are successful are terrible, and at least Napoleon Dynamite was terrible in an interesting way. Playing out like a DIY mash-up of Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater, and Wes Anderson (with none of those directors’ verbal dexterity, sneaky humanism, or actual stylistic talent), the film mostly featured lots of scenes like this:
Character Who Is Not Napoleon Dynamite: “Hey Napoleon! Your name’s Napoleon, Napoleon! How weird is that, Napoleon?”
Napoleon Dynamite: “Sweet! Oh my gosh! Skills!”
The cult of Napoleon Dynamite faded away relatively quickly, but the film holds a special place in recent pop culture. If nothing else, the film feels uniquely American — an oddly rare experience in this era of global-friendly blockbusters. (The film made just barely $1 million abroad.) So I was genuinely intrigued to watch last night’s two-episode premiere of the cartoon adaptation of Napoleon Dynamite. Created by the film’s original writer-directors and starring all the original cast members, the new Napoleon is also the rare new Fox cartoon that is not produced by Seth MacFarlane, which should earn it extra points just for uniqueness.
Unfortunately, the two episodes that aired last night were pretty dire. In Fox-Animation terms, they played out like a bad-idea Frankenstein mish-mash of King of the Hill‘s leisurely pacing and Family Guy‘s hyperkinetic plotting. The show follows the misadventures of Napoleon, his crazy family which is actually not very crazy, and his eccentric schoolmates who are not actually very eccentric. The first half-hour focused on Napoleon’s attempt to get rid of his zits, which to make a long story short led to a Thunderdome-esque cage match between the two Dynamite brothers. There were a shocking amount of incredibly lame wordplay jokes, including:
–“Oohhh, Kip is ripped!”
–“You took my chicken. Now I’m taking your chick.”
–“As long as men are hurtin’ and blood’s a spurtin’!”
I’m not actually sure if any of those lines were supposed to be funny, or if the humor was supposed to derive from how not funny they are, or if the writers were asking us to laugh at the whole idea of making a joke. Either way, I didn’t laugh and now my nose is bleeding. (The rhyming humor extended to the second half-hour, which featured the phrase “Jean loves Gene.”)
If you’re a die-hard Napoleon Dynamite fan, then I guess the sheer microscopic recreation of the movie’s world might be fascinating. Didn’t you always wonder what Don’s house looked like? Do you even remember who Don is? The answers to those two questions will define how much you enjoy Napoleon Dynamite.
There were two laugh-out-loud moments in the Dynamite premiere night:
1. At one point, Napoleon’s Uncle Rico held up a book with the title “Quarterback Detective.” Not all random humor is bad random humor.
2. Kip took a date to a local pizza joint which featured a robot band that played KidzBop versions of famous pop songs, with “Pizza” added to the lyrics. (As in: “All that she wants…is another Pizza!”) The robot band was composed of a kangaroo, an octopus, an ape, and Abraham Lincoln. When someone asked if all their songs were about pizza, Kip said, “Not all of them! ‘Pizzaritaville’ isn’t about pizza. It’s about a town.” I’m laughing now just thinking about it, and I’m seriously considering adding “Pizza” to all songs I sing at work for the next week.
Beyond that, though, I wasn’t too impressed by the Napoleon Dynamite series. It felt a little bit like watching an old one-hit wonder band play a show in Reno, where you sit patiently for the whole concert waiting for them to get to the good stuff. If you’re someone who’s been waiting almost seven years to hear Jon Heder say, “I’ll use my skills to beat you!” then you might dig this show. The rest of us will just have to hope that Fox isn’t currently considering a cartoon remake of Garden State.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich