Cult Cinema: Napoleon Dynamite

Jared Hess’ Napoleon Dynamite takes the ever-popular teen high school movie to an extreme. While it does follow some traditional conventions of teen high school films, it simultaneously throws conventions out of the window. However, those abandoned conventions are self-aware decisions which steer the film away from paracinema and closer to a hyperbolic parody. Hess helps to drive the films satiristic elements by toying with the concept of time. By keeping time ambiguous and playing with nostalgia, Hess is able to concurrently mock and form a homage to the golden age of teen movies, the two decades between the 1980s and 2000s. This all added up to the film attracting an audience of varying ages, allowing it to earn over one-hundred and eleven times its budget within a year1. However, its initial commercial success meant it had to achieve cult status through, ironically unconventional means. Napoleon Dynamite combines the cult characteristics of hyperbole, nostalgia, and the disruption of time to successfully exploit the popularity of teen high school films.

Napoleon Dynamite is inspired largely in part by Jared Hess’ family, who lived in Preston, Idaho, the town in which the film is set. Hess has stated that the film “was very autobiographical,” and that after “being in college and looking back at [his] high school years through a different lens, [he] was able to find humor in very painful situations when [he was] a teenager.” The film was Jared’s first feature film, and was shot on a relatively tight budget of four hundred thousand dollars. Hess claims his main inspiration for the film as Gates of Heaven (1978) by Errol Morris, particularly in terms of the static camera.

Like most teen films, Napoleon Dynamite features a dorky protagonist and their equally dorky sidekick, in this case those roles are filled by Napoleon Dynamite (John Heder) and Pedro (Efren Ramirez), respectively. In teen films, the protagonist lusts after a girl who is perceivably in a whole different league, but then comes to realize that he’s better off with the dorky girl who has been under his nose the whole time. Of course, it would not be a proper teen film without the inclusion of either the student council election, or the prom. Luckily, Napoleon Dynamite includes both.

The film hyperbolizes these characters and events by applying every stereotypical characteristic to them. In the case of Napoleon himself, visually he slouches, is unfashionable, wears large glasses, has unkempt hair, and is unfortunately lanky. Most notably, he has an incredibly droning and unenthusiastic voice with which he uses to express his dorky choice of words, which includes “gosh” and “freaking,” as well as to talk to anyone who will listen about his even dorkier hobbies. Napoleon’s hobbies are an amalgamation of things which would be considered “cool” if done with skill, such as dancing, karate, and drawing. However, the dorkiness lies in Napoleon’s sheer lack of skill, combined with his misguided confidence in his aforementioned non-existent skills.

Napoleon’s depressingly unrealistic pursuit of the popular girl, Trisha (Emily Dunn), is an all-too-familiar plot device that is common in many teen films. Typically the protagonist would either get brutally shut down by the popular girl, or the popular girl would agree due to having an ulterior motive. Hess twists this trope by having Trisha’s mother force her to attend the dance with Napoleon. Inevitably, Trisha ditches Napoleon at the dance.

The disruption of time is a major device that Hess uses throughout the film. The time period in which the film takes place is glaringly ambiguous throughout the film, with the only clue being that it is post-1982 since Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) desperately wants to return to 1982. This can be taken as commentary that teen films really have not evolved over the two decades between 1982 and the release of Napoleon Dynamite in 2004. In turn, the ambiguity serves the hyperbole of the film, since the ambiguity of time allows the film to utilize tropes that overlap with the entirety of the two decade teen film era.

Proof of the films wide temporal reach is in the visuals, as well as in the audio. By setting the film in Preston, Idaho, Jared Hess is able to use the lagged progression of rural America to maintain the idea that the film could be taking place at any point within the previous thirty years. The costumes add to this, since the outfits that the characters wear are at times timeless, while also very exclusive to a particular era. Deb’s (Tina Majorino) side ponytail hair-do and puffy-sleeved prom dress places her in the 80s. Napoleon’s outfit can be used to place him in the 80s as well, because despite his “timeless” t-shirt and jeans combination, his choice of footwear, Moon Boots, were mainly popular in the 80s. Despite the vintage look of the main characters, the background characters mostly dress as any normal person would in present day 2004. In terms of props, the interior of Napoleon’s home features 80s technology, like the RCA Betamax player and the tube television, but at the same time it also has internet since Napoleon’s brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), uses his computer for online dating. Clearly the disparity of technology in the house makes it difficult to pin a time period, while at the same time it helps audiences of various ages relate to the film. Napoleon’s high school adds to the vagueness of time, since the laminate floors, fluorescent lighting, chalkboards, and metal lockers are timeless features of every high school.

Temporal ambiguity is also represented through the films soundtrack. Throughout the film, the audience hears the “A-Team Theme,” by John Swihart, from 1983, “I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow from 1982, “Forever Young” by Alphaville from 1984, and various other 80s hits. However, the film ends with “Canned Heat” by Jamiroquai, which was released in 1999, the turn of the new millennium. The film simply refuses to conform to a single decade.

This method of conforming to a time period allows the film to exploit the teen film subgenre in order to go after the nostalgia of its viewers. Having been released in 2004, Napoleon Dynamite would have a lot of viewers who had attended high school in the 80s and 90s. The film itself mimics the nostalgia it is causing for its audience. Throughout the film, Uncle Rico reminisces about his glory days as an all-star football player during his time in high school in 1982. Uncle Rico at one point sits Napoleon and Kip down to watch one of his football videos, and states that he wishes he could “go back in time” to “take state.” This is consistent with Pam Cook’s connection of nostalgia and film in cinema, and the necessity of accessing the past through images, as Uncle Rico does with his football video and as the audience does by watching Napoleon Dynamite. Like almost everything in Napoleon Dynamite, Uncle Rico’s nostalgia is hyperbolized. His nostalgia becomes a driving force which leads him to desperately trying to find a time machine. After looking online and failing, he tries to build his own, which results in Uncle Rico electrocuting himself and shattering his dreams. This is a jab at the audience, by exaggerating their own high school nostalgia and bringing them back down to earth by reminding them that there is no way to return to that point in their lives.

Thanks to the wide range of ages Napoleon Dynamite attempted to appeal to through its fuzziness regarding time and exploitation of high school nostalgia, the film was mostly positively received throughout North America. Typically, cult films do not succeed financially so quickly after release, so Napoleon Dynamite could not claim cult status thanks to the typical delayed-success trajectory. Although, according to Jon Heder, the film’s distributor, Fox Searchlight, was aiming for the delayed-success trajectory, as they were “trying to build this slow-building audience to capture this cult feel1.” The film also received many awards, including three MTV Movie Awards, four Teen Choice Awards, and Best Feature at the US Comedy Arts Festival. This again is atypical of cult films, putting Napoleon Dynamite on thin ice regarding its establishment as a cult film, despite the cult characteristics that are rife throughout the body of the film.

Napoleon Dynamite can attribute part of the reception side of cult status to its division of audiences. Despite the financial success and armful of awards, and despite its attempt to appeal to a broad age group, many audience members either love the film or hate it, with very few in between. Four years after release, this disparity in the audience has created a phenomenon that is known as “The Napoleon Dynamite problem.” The problem being that popular movie streaming website, Netflix, had an impressively accurate algorithm that could recommend films based on taste, but was not able to accurately recommend Napoleon Dynamite to anybody. It was virtually impossible for Netflix to examine user’s taste in films and confidently recommend the film to someone and predict that they would enjoy the film. This kind of audience split, where you either liked the film or not (and there was no way to tell if you would like it) kept the film on the tongues of movie goers even years after the initial release, typically in the form of a debate on whether or not the film is actually good.

Among those who actually like the film, its legacy is continued on a yearly basis as the town it was set and filmed in, Preston, Idaho, hosts an annual “Napoleon Dynamite Festival.” The festival involves multiple events based on the film, which include a tetherball tournament, tater tot eating contest, Moon Boot dance off, football throwing contest, and more. For a few years, the festival drew several thousand fans until it was combined with the town’s annual rodeo. Profits from the festival went to improving Preston High School, the school in which Napoleon Dynamite was shot. The local pride in the film extended to the state level, where the Idaho legislature unanimously passed a bill which commends Jared Hess on his creation of the film, and how it positively represents Preston and the entire state itself.

Jared Hess injected his own experiences and high school nostalgia into the creation of Napoleon Dynamite. The result became a film that succumbed to the conventions of the classic teen high school subgenre, while also hyperbolizing the stereotypes to their maximum capacity. By setting the film in a town lost in time, with visual and aural cues that only further confuse time, Hess is able to encompass the two-decade long era of teen films. This allows the audience to latch onto the nostalgia of the film’s tropes, even though the age range of the audience is quite broad. Consequently, the film saw immediate success, which spelled disaster for any hopes of evolving into a cult film. However, thanks to the films divisive powers which caused many debates regarding the quality of the film, as exemplified in “The Napoleon Dynamite Problem,” the film remained relevant even years after its release. Its relevancy was helped by its immortalization has a government bill passed by Idaho legislature, and in the form of the annual Napoleon Dynamite Festival held in Preston, Idaho every summer.