[15 January 2012]
Now, eight years after Napoleon Dynamite arrived in theaters, it’s okay to admit it made you laugh. Jared and Jerusha Hess’ aggressively deadpan summer sleeper hit has been so deeply unfashionable since 2004 that it’s easy to forget that, for a brief moment or two, it was cool. Almost cool, anyway, or so inversely uncool that it was cool, like a snake eating its own tail and then regurgitating itself.
Napoleon Dynamite was also gentle-spirited enough to persuade us to overlook how head-scratchingly peculiar it could be, even if it had a conventional high school comedy setting and plot. Its popularity was at least in part the result of the advertising campaign on its behalf, by the indie film distribution arm (Fox Searchlight) of large and cynical entertainment conglomerate. By autumn, most anyone below the age of 30 could tell you what a liger was and would gladly and rhetorically ask if the chickens had large talons. At that point, you could tell the movie’s future reputation was doomed.
That was unfortunate, because whatever one thought about Napoleon Dynamite, there was no denying that it was unusual in American comedy. In a genre that too often relies on shocking gross-outs, adult content, and lightning-quick zingers for laughs, the Hesses (a Mormon husband-wife team who met at BYU’s film school) made a movie that mainstream audiences clearly found hilarious, while employing minimal projectile bodily fluids, no language harsher than “freaking,” and a sense of comic timing so offbeat and understated that its funniest lines dropped from characters’ mouths like nuggets of Beat poetry (“I caught you a delicious bass”).
It’s the absence of this latter quality in particular that gives the new animated sitcom adaptation of Napoleon Dynamite a vague aura of dissatisfaction. Debuting in the midst of Fox’s cartoon comedy Sunday night schedule, alongside The Simpsons, Family Guy, and the latter’s various offshoots, Napoleon Dynamite the series forms its comedic syntax in the vernacular of those established shows instead of retaining the singular phrasing of Napoleon Dynamite the movie, and suffers as a result.
Despite the creative involvement of the Hesses and the voice acting of the entire original movie cast, the comic situations, character interrelations, and joke writing all take cues from the Simpsonic method. This shows the influence of series producer and co-creator Mike Scully, a television comedy vet best known for presiding over The Simpsons as showrunner in the late 1990s. Scully’s stewardship saw the show transition from a dead-on, must-watch weekly satire to a venerable phantom of its former glory, grinding on eternally as a corporate profit machine. He also had a major role in turning The Simpsons’s iconoclastic comic inspiration into a repeatable formula, and this animated take on Napoleon Dynamite fits snugly into that paradigm.
That seems to be the case in the first two episodes, anyway. The premiere (“Thundercone”) pits Napoleon (Jon Heder, safely in his element) against his older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell, whose expressionless line readings suffer badly from the zany tenor of the writing) for the affections of a fickle blonde (guest star Amy Poehler). The unfolding plot of forced wackiness involves rage-inducing anti-acne cream and a final showdown in the titular Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome-type grain silo battle arena. Yes, a Mad Max parody: this show is precisely that original.
The stronger second episode (“Scantronica Love”) skews more closely to the Hesses’ chosen aesthetic, exploiting the all-American weirdness of the Dynamites’ Idaho stomping grounds much as their film did. It also incorporates more of the movie’s off-the-wall details, which its fans are likely to appreciate. After the powerful tonal dissonance of “Thundercone,” it’s comforting to see familiar touches like tater tots, tetherball, the moneymaking schemes of Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), Rex Kwan Do, and Pedro (Efren Ramirez) riding his bike over makeshift jump ramps. It is also more successfully approximates the pokerfaced nerdiness that made the film’s dialogue so eminently quotable, in particular when Napoleon interprets an inkblot image as “a samurai warrior relaxing after a long day of defending his prefecture.”
“Scantronica Love” is more comfortable in its own comic skin, down to the guest spot from previous Hess collaborator Jemaine Clement as an unctuous health teacher. It represents a potential way forward for this animated sitcom that may not lead to the sort of infinitely replicable success enjoyed by its Sunday-night counterparts, but would at least be more true to the idiosyncrasies of its source material. If Napoleon Dynamite chooses that path, it could be more than a merely watchable animated sitcom, which is all that its initial episodes constitute, sad to say. A delicious bass it ain’t, at least not yet.