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Napoleon Dynamite

(2004) ** 1/2 Pg
90 min. Fox Searchlight. Director: Jared Hess. Cast: Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, Jon Gries, Aaron Ruell, Tina Majorino.

For the "not for all tastes" file, Fox Searchlight not-so-humbly submits Napoleon Dynamite, which made a minor splash at the Sundance Film Festival. Though there's plenty to resent about this Mormon-bred (!) indie, if it achieves cult status, it won't be for nothing. Napoleon Dynamite coasts on wacked-out style—purposefully tacky production design, fearless sight gags, and deadpan (to near-comatose) delivery—gently rolling through its suburban high school comedy with amusing aplomb.

So what's to resent? For starters, film fans may chafe at Hess's way of nakedly ripping off Wes Anderson, from the colorfully symmetrical title sequence to the split-brained derision-affection for the film's misguided characters. Many will simply find nothing funny about the stupid antics and light inflection of the film's mostly plotless comedy. But the careful detail to the idiosyncracies of time, place, and personality go some way to Napoleon Dynamite's humble success.

Primarily, Jon Heder makes the film as the titular anti-hero (who coincidentally shares his name with an Elvis Costello pseudonym, circa 1986). As played by Heder and scripted by Hess and wife Jerusha, Napoleon is a singular comic creation with a particular parlance and a perpetually gape-mouthed expression. His speech his peppered with the words "friggin'" and "dang" and "even," as in "What the heck are you even talking about?" He's a churlish chump who lies to puff himself up with volleys of hopeless self-protection against the barbs of the popular kids.

His small-town Idaho existence is so pathetic as to make him sympathetic, anyway. His home life is intolerable, especially when his guardian grandmother winds up in the hospital, leaving Napoleon with his insufferably prissy brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) and his Uncle Rico (Jon Gries). A horrifying peek into the boys' future, Rico slums around town pushing plastic food storage containers and herbal breast enhancers, when not desperately clinging to his high-school football "glory days."

Sketching creatures of his own creation in his Trapper Keeper or battering a tetherball, Napoleon cuts a lonely figure around campus until he strikes up with "new kid" Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and shy girl Deb (Tina Majorino). Waxing eloquent about their all-important "skills"—like "hooking up skills" and "sweet bike skills"—Napoleon resolves to help them to help himself—if they can succeed in their pursuits, after all, then he'll be in with an "in" crowd. When Pedro runs for high school president against popular blonde Summer (Haylie Duff, Hilary's sis), Napoleon Dynamite finds its nominal plot.

To the extent that Napoleon Dynamite is about anything, it is about the pain of not belonging and the salvation of friendship (the film opens with the White Stripes's We're Going to Be Friends" and ends with When in Rome's "The Promise"). Since a majority of high school students experience a painful adjustment while initially finding a circle of friends, the film should have a substantial appeal among younger viewers. They may also respond best to the silliest of the film's gags, like a homemade time machine purchased on eBay, Diedrich Bader's shady "Rex Kwon Do" teacher, and the implicit culture clash of Pedro and Kip's new friend LaFawnduh with their lily-white surroundings.

Hess makes strong use of dismal Idaho locations, and comically traps the characters in the '80s despite the present-day setting evinced by references to the internet: besides the Trapper Keeper and pop songs, Hess serves up a casio score by John Swihart and long-abandoned fashions. The feel-good finale relies on an oldie but a goodie in the joke department: an awkward performance at a school assembly. Napoleon Dynamite may not even be friggin' sweet, but it does have skills.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 2/3/2009

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In its Blu-ray debut from Fox, Napoleon Dynamite is looking good. There's some edge enhancement and mild dirt, and the overall impression is a little soft, but that seems to owe to the source; this transfer accurately represents how the film looked in theaters, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is certainly definitive for this 2004 indie.

The disc is jam-packed with bonus features, beginning with a commentary by director/co-writer Jared Hess, actor Jon Heder and producer Jeremy Coon, and a cast commentary by Aaron Ruell, Efren Ramirez, Jon Gries and Tina Majorino. They're quite entertaining in revealing how the little film that could...did.

"World Premiere: Jared Hess" (43:29, SD) is an insanely detailed doc trailing Hess before, during and after the film's premiere at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, including hometown interviews with family and friends.

"On Location: Napoleon Dynamite" (41:36, SD) is an unusually raw, all-access making-of without the usual talking-head interviews; rather, it cultivates a very real sense of the production by shooting rehearsals and filming as problems are troubleshot.

Four "Deleted and Extended Scenes" (8:04 with "Play All" option, SD) come with optional commentary by Hess, Heder and Coon. Four more "Deleted and Extended Scenes" (5:05 with "Play All" option, SD) come without commentary. Then, there's "More Sweet Outtakes" (5:35 with "Play All" option, SD).

In "Casting Napoleon Dynamite: An Interview with Jory Weitz" (13:05, SD) casting director/executive producer Weitz talks us through how he became involved and how he cast the film, illustrated by audition tapes. We also get complete "Audition Videos" (5:38 with "Play All" option, SD) for Majorino, Ramirez and Haylie Duff.

"Peluca" (8:46, SD) is the 2002 short film, by Jared Hess, that inspired Napoleon Dynamite. Hess, Heder and Coon provide optional commentary. Shot in black and white, the film finds the Napoleon character nearly fully formed (except he's called Seth).

"Napoleon Sightings--and Pedro" (18:24 with "Play All" option, SD) includes TRL clips, the "Tankman Begins" parody from the 2005 MTV Movie Awards, the SNL monologue by Heder, a 2004 Teen Choice Awards intro, Heder accepting a 2005 Teen Choice Award, and a clip from the 2005 National Spelling Bee.

We're not done--next up are three "Utah State Fair Ads/TV Spots" (1:44, SD), followed by "The Wedding of the Century!" (3:46, SD), a featurette that tells the tale of the making of the film's bonus scene, with Ramirez, Heder, Ruell, Shondrella Avery discussing their one-year reunion.

Rounding out the disc are seven "MTV On-Air Promos" (3:58, SD), six "'Napoleon Goes to Hollywood' Spots" (3:09, SD), a Still Gallery, and the "Easter Egg: 'What's in Jon's Kool-Aid?'" (:45). Sweet.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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