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Napoleon Dynamite

Movies | A hit at last year's Sundance Film Festival, this is one of the oddest, goofiest movies to hit theaters in quite some time

Issue: "Iraq: Bravo Company's story," Aug. 21, 2004

Napoleon Dynamite (rated PG for thematic elements and language), a hit at last year's Sundance Film Festival, is one of the oddest, goofiest movies to hit theaters in quite some time. It's not so much a story as it is a character study, but that term may be too grandiose for a film involving tater tots and time machines.

Napoleon is a consummate nerd, from his unruly shock of frizzy red hair down to his vinyl moon boots. He and his brother, a mustached 32-year-old who spends his afternoons in internet chat rooms, live with their grandmother in Idaho. The film, rather than relying on silly things like plot and story development, sets about putting high-schooler Napoleon in awkward, embarrassing, and/or painful situations. Part of what's fascinating, though, is that the situations are more embarrassing for the audience than they are for Napoleon himself, who is oblivious to most of what goes on around him.

Napoleon Dynamite was made by a group of graduates from Brigham Young University. Its director (Jared Hess), writer (Jerusha, the director's wife), and star (Jon Heder) are all Mormons. It's not, however, a "Mormon" movie. The influence of the creators' faith is perhaps exhibited primarily in what's left out of the film. Napoleon has plenty of opportunities to turn dark and disturbing (like the similarly themed Welcome to the Dollhouse), yet it never does.

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Instead, the film remains fixated on Napoleon and the odd cast of characters that surround him with unpretentious glee. In that sense, despite the lack of much in the way of a story arc, Napoleon is always surprising. It also remains grounded in a (heightened) reality to which we all can relate, even its most surreal scenes containing details lodged in our own memories of childhood. Whether one is interested in spending a couple of hours with this oddball group will probably be a matter of-strong-personal preference.


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