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Kid on Bus: What are you gonna do today, Napoleon?
—Opening lines of the movie. He is 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; the trope page for the cartoon series can be found here.
Napoleon Dynamite provides examples of:
- Adorkable - The big dance scene.
- Advertised Extra: Diedrich Bader has two scenes and receives Top Billing but compare some of the other Characters like Sumer played by Fake Guest Star Haylie Duff who has much more screen time then him.
- Alpha Bitch - Averted. The worst thing Summer Wheatley actually does is refuse Pedro's offer to go to the dance.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees - The liger is actually a real animal. Not actually bred for its skills with magic, though.
- 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.
- Anachronism Stew - The movie lulls you into thinking it's the 80's (with the music and the characters' clothes) then 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. 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."
- Animated Adaptation
- Awesome McCoolname - Napoleon Dynamite. (Fun fact--Elvis Costello was using "Napoleon Dynamite" as a pseudonym nearly twenty years before this movie came out.)
- 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, though--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.
- Catch Phrase - "Gosh!" "(Friggin') Idiot!"
- 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 Skill~ - Napoleon practicing his dance moves.
- Cloudcuckoolander - Everyone.
- Credits Brand Products - In the opening credits and DVD menus.
- Dawson Casting Most of the main cast of high school students were in their 20's or 30's with the exception of Tina Majorino and Hailie Duff who were both about 18. Averted with the extras played by actual high school students.
- Dull Surprise
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- ~Hey, It's That Guy!~: Jon Gries (Uncle Rico) had many bit parts before this, but you'd never make the connection until after seeing him in this.
- 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 isn't calling them liars, but he doesn't think it's a name that you'll ever come across twice.
- I Call It Vera - Pedro's bike.
- I Coulda Been a Contender - Parodied with Uncle Rico's football dreams.
- The Illegal - Pedro.
- Insistent Terminology: "My friends and colleagues, they call me Uncle Rico..."
- Jaded Washout: Uncle Rico.
- 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.
- And there is now merchandise backlash, e.g. t-shirts saying "Pedro lacks political experience."
- Metaphorgotten - "I, uh, would like to give you this advice. And a fella give me some years ago. He said, "When an argument arises... if you go outside and take, uh, a nice walk... you'll calm down and then you can come back and it won't be an argument."
"And you'll find that helps your health."
- 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.
- Nerd - And how!
- Nerds Are Sexy — Napoleon developed a huge bevy of fangirls. Enough that some newspapers and magazines ran articles about the phenomenon.
- No Antagonist — Uncle Rico is probably the closest thing this film has to a villain, but he’s more of a delusional douchebag then actually evil.
- Odd Friendship — Business-savvy redneck Rico and technology-loving loser Kip. Also Napoleon and Pedro, to a lesser degree.
- 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 actually manages to score with a black woman.
- Random Events Plot - Pretty much.
- 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. (Not LaFonda.)
- Scenery Porn - The town it's filmed in (Preston, Idaho) makes it this for some.
- Shmuck Bait - The "time machine" couldn't be any more this.
- Sophisticated As Hell
- Stylistic Suck: The hideous portrait of Trisha drawn by Napoleon, and anything drawn by him in general. Like the Liger.
- Throw It In - Napoleon's dancing was entirely improvised by Heder.
- Also, the scene where Kip is giving the demonstration with the van and the dinnerware. Originally, he was to roll over it, and the plastic would deform but reshape itself, to which Kip was to say, "Pretty cool." However, the plastic was unable to comply due to the laws of physics, and that is what is seen in the film. It turns to be actually funnier.
- The Unintelligible - Lyle the farmer. He has actual lines, but they're almost impossible to understand due to the actor's mumbling speech.
- Too Quirky to Lose - This whole movie but particularly the climax is an example of this trope.
- 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.
- "Take a look at what I'm wearing. You think someone wants a roundhouse kick to the face while I'm wearing these bad boys?!"
- What Do You Mean It's Not Awesome?: The entire subtext of everything in the film lampshades this.
- 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 actually marrying Kip.
- What the Fu Are You Doing?: Kip's "cage fighting skills" vs. Rex.
- 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.
- Wimp Fight - Every fight in the movie: Napoleon vs. Uncle Rico, Napoleon vs. Kip, and Kip vs. Rex... they're all pretty pathetic.
- "I think you ripped my mole off!"
- Write What You Know: Jared and Jerusha Hess are from a small Mormon community in Idaho, and Pedro was based on Jared's friend.
- Younger Than They Look
- Your Mom - "Your mom goes to college!"