Fox series gives an improbable second act to ‘Napoleon Dynamite’

by Rick Bentley

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

12 January 2012


PASADENA, Calif. — It’s time for the return of “Napoleon Dynamite.”

John Heder has reunited with the entre cast — including Aaron Ruell and “Vote for Pedro’s” Efren Ramirez — to provide the voices for the animated version of the film. The already cartoonish Napoleon Dynamite, and the gang, can be seen when the series debuts with back-to-back episodes starting at Sunday on Fox.

There was talk of making a live-action sequel when “Dynamite” mania exploded after the movie was released in 2004. But, it never happened, so Heder, Ruell and Ramirez never expected to return to the roles. Heder and Ramirez went on to do other acting work, while Ruell shifted his attention back to his first creative love — photography — as acting’s always just been a passing interest for him.

Ruell says that “Napoleon Dynamite” seemed like it was so unique that there would never be another chance to play the roles. He became convinced of that with each passing year.

“I was like, that’s OK. It was fun,” Ruell says.

That it got a second life surprised the actors, but not that it came back in an animated form. It’s the best way to revive the characters since the story can continue the exploits of Dynamite in high school for as long as the series runs.

Ramirez believes that “Napoleon Dynamite” was such a phenomenon that there would have been no way to match it with another live-action version. It was so big that there were dolls, toys and loads of T-shirts featuring catch phrases from the movie. Some voters actually wrote in “Vote Pedro” on ballots.

When creator and director Jared Hess made the movie, he was a student who hoped his small film would play well enough at a film festival to help him get an agent and eventually more work.

“We didn’t anticipate at all that we would get into Sundance and then it would get picked up by Fox and then released and that people would like it and all that stuff,” Hess says. “It was all a dream come true.”

Heder didn’t even audition for the role of the lovable dork in “Napoleon Dynamite.” He was issued a mandate by Hess that he was going to be in the movie.

“I owe everything to the film. I wouldn’t have done all the other things I have done if it hadn’t been in that movie,” Heder says. “I was acting in college and studying animation. If the movie hadn’t happened, I probably would have gone down the road of being an animator.”

Heder first realized the movie was going to huge when it was screened at the Sundance Film Festival and the audience loved it. That was the first time he saw the film with people who weren’t friends, family or fellow film workers.

Sundance wasn’t as big a clue for Ruell. He figured if there was one audience that would embrace the quirkiness of the characters, it would the festival folk. His realization came when the actors had to go through 360-degree body scans to create action figures of their characters.

Ramirez had two “ah-ha” moments.

“There was the first time I saw Denzel Washington wearing a ‘Vote for Pedro’ T-shirt,” Ramirez says. “Then there was the ‘War of the Worlds’ premiere and I met Sir Anthony Hopkins and he was wearing a ‘Vote for Pedro’ button. It was cool to see he had that.”

One of pleasant surprises of “Napoleon Dynamite” is that while many argue it’s one of the coolest and edgiest movies to be released in the last decade, it contains so little adult material it carries a PG rating. The actors are often stopped by pre-teens who are huge fans.

The actors point to the creators for making “Napoleon Dynamite” seem a lot more risque than it really is. Hess says it’s all a matter of finding ways to do jokes that are based on the characters and their environment.

“For us it pushes us creatively to find ways to do that and feel comfortable while trying to make it real funny but also saying your whole family can watch this and you’re not going to feel like you’ve got to fast forward the TiVo,” Hess says.

That same approach will be used for the return of “Napoleon Dynamite.”

8:30 p.m. EST Sunday

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