Jeremy Likes TV

I like TV. Probably more than any human should.

Review: Napoleon Dynamite

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Grade: C

Why Fox decided it would be a good idea to base a new animated series on Napoleon Dynamite, a film from eight years ago that wore out its welcome roughly ten minutes after it was released [1], is certainly a head-scratcher. I can’t imagine that anyone was really clamoring to see more of the Dynamite family which leaves you wondering: Were Fox execs impaired in some manner when they gave the show the thumbs-up? Did movie and series star Jon Heder have blackmail material on said executives? Were the rights to Soul Plane unavailable? In any event, the series was greenlit and – as of this writing – two episodes have aired (with another on the way tonight following The Simpsons). After seeing the first two installments, the decision to go ahead with the series is even more puzzling.

Just as the movie did, this Napoleon Dynamite follows the exploits of its titular star – a teenage outcast in Preston, Idaho – and the wacky group of family and friends that surround him. While some might say that the film itself was a live-action cartoon, here the characters are actually two-dimensionally animated. If you’ve seen the film, you know that Napoleon (Jon Heder, Blades Of Glory) is an awkward and not-particularly-likeable gawky kid who’s got an inflated self-opinion that belies his nerd status, even in a small town like Preston. Helping him navigate his way through adolescence are best friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez, Crank) and neighbor Deb (Tina Majorino, Veronica Mars), who has a rather obvious crush on Napoleon that he’s either oblivious to or too self-absorbed to care about. The show, like the movie, also spends time with the other members of the Dynamite family, which include older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), Uncle Rico (Jon Gries, Lost), and Grandma Dynamite (Sandy Martin, Big Love). Rounding out the cast is Dietrich Bader (The Drew Carey Show) as Preston tae-kwon-do master Rex and, although he’s central to the plot of the first episode, shoehorning him into future episodes could prove tricky due to the… uh… let’s call it “specialized” nature of the character. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the characters seem to wear the animated format fairly well. Since wackiness was a hallmark of the film, the animated setting allows the Hesses to turn the crazy dial up even more [2] and, in episodes like “Thundercone” – where the side effects of a discontinued acne cream turn Napoleon into a ball of rage who’s drafted into a secret town fight club – the increased absurdity works at least somewhat. A subplot in that episode where Kip meets a woman (Parks And Recreation’s Amy Poehler) over the Internet and takes her to a Chuck E. Cheese-esque pizza restaurant on a date leads to the episode’s biggest chuckles – Kip remarking about the anamatronic band: “I’ve never seen them play a bad show.” – however, I don’t know that I laughed once during the second episode, “Scantronica Love,” where a chemistry teacher develops a machine that supposedly matches individuals up with their perfect mate. Hilarity is supposed to ensue, but decidedly does not.

Perhaps the biggest element that the show has in its favor is that it returns almost the entire cast from the movie to voice the animated versions of themselves. On the one hand, the fact that Jared and Jerusha Hess (the husband/wife duo behind the original film) has gotten the cast to reprise their roles here is a plus. The characters from the movie were so singular – for all of the good and bad that entails – that having anyone else voice them would have likely been ill-fated. On the other, it’s not like Hollywood was necessarily beating down Heder’s or Gries’ door so what else were they going to do? Turn this down? Through two episodes, Napoleon Dynamite has also managed to attract some respected names in comedy to do guest spots. Poehler appeared in the pilot as the object of Kip’s affections, while Jennifer Coolidge (veteran of the Christopher Guest improv comedies) and Jemaine Clement (of Flight Of The Conchords and seemingly doing his voice from Jared Hess’ Gentlemen Broncos) voice characters in the second episode. Continuing to attract these types of guests can only help the series’ prospects as well.

Ultimately, your opinion of Napoleon Dynamite the series is likely going to be based almost entirely on how you felt about Napoleon Dynamite the film. For me? It’s harmless enough product. It’s kind of just there and definitely isn’t worth going out of your way to see but, as someone whose near-six-year-old son liked it, I’ll probably be sticking with it for the foreseeable future even as I don’t have much expectation that it’s going to get better. Were it not for that? Bail City. I certainly won’t be writing about it again because, more than anything, no matter what your opinion of the movie was, the show is exactly what you think it is. Exactly. What you think. It is. And there’s really no mystery – or interest – in something like that.

[1] I’ll cop to enjoying the movie myself when it first came out. Granted, I was 26 and immature but I liked it well enough. However, the film– unlike myself – has not aged particularly well.
[2] That Simpsons vet Mike Scully is part of the creative team bodes well for the future, but Scully’s only one man. He can only do so much.

Miscellany:
*One of the side effects of Rac-U-Tane, the zit cream that Napoleon uses in “Thundercone”, causes another character to remark: “It smells like a burnt lasagna.”
*Side effects include: bad breath, BO, lust, fits of unbridled rage
*The name of the Preston fight club is the Pioneer Punch Club. Oy.
*The Pioneer Punch Club seems to be an excuse to get Dietrich Bader’s Rex character into the mix. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s hard to see how he’s going to fit in the series in future episodes which is a shame in some respects because Bader is a very talented and experienced voice actor.
*I love that Kip has burned CDs of the anamatronic pizza band and that he offers to make a copy for his online date. Of course he would have burned CDs of the anamatronic pizza band.
*”OK… this one better not be made of pipe cleaners again.”
*”I don’t want your sick woman. But I could take her if I wanted.”
*”Grandma’s not going anywhere. She’s inside airing out in her bra and jeans.” Try getting that image out of your heads now.
*”Come on… let me murder you.”
*”This better be good. I was just skinny-dipping with Merle Haggard.”
*Episodes below via Hulu.

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