Place me firmly in the camp of people who are not Napoleon Dynamite fans. Back when the film was released in 2004, I got about twenty seconds into the trailer before the overwhelming cries of “Gosh! Heck yes! Idiot!” caused me to black out and crack my head open on my computer keyboard. I laid there, unconscious, for nearly eight years, but I have awoken just in time to catch Napoleon Dynamite- the brand new animated series based on the hit film, airing every Sunday at 8:30 on Fox!
Now, if you please, hit “Continue Reading” to find out what an unabashed Dynamite-hater thinks of this new, Dynamite-centric series. It may surprise you.
Napoleon Dynamite (the series, that is) is not awful. It’s ok. Not spectacular. A lot of these characters are unappealing or irritating, but the world they inhabit is fun and feels fresh and interesting. I’ll give it that. The stories in these first two episodes feel creative, like the writers are flexing their boundaries- first we get Napoleon getting super-strength from tainted zit cream and joining a farm-based fight club, then later a matchmaking robot pairs up all of Napoleon’s classmates in a school activity. It’s nice not to see the same damn story over and over again.
And here’s something else I’ll give to Napoleon Dynamite- having never seen the movie, it didn’t take long at all to get introduced to these characters and understand their ins and outs. Clearly you don’t have to intimately know the film to get what’s going on here. So that’s a plus. And when the bulk of new shows this year have characters that are flat, unoriginal, or are old stereotypes we’ve seen eight billion times before, it’s nice to see a setting populated with unique people you wouldn’t find on any other show. Yes I’m aware all the characters were taken from the film. But this is one case of recycling-something-solely-because-it-has-an-established-fanbase that I don’t hate.
Now on to what I do hate: the jokes.
There are a ton of jokes in Napoleon Dynamite. Plenty of blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em visual gags, Simpsons-esque sign gags, slapstick humor , quips and quick cutaways. The funnies come just like they do in Family Guy or The Simpsons.
Is this really the best way to do this kind of humor? The strength of this show is weird people doing weird things, but half the fun of weird humor is people’s reactions to it. By attempting to keep the jokes coming fast and furious, Napoleon Dynamite feels oddly paced. It all feels so rushed.
Now, fast-paced humor can be great on an animated show, but there are plenty of shows that thrive on the exact opposite- I’ll use King of the Hill as an example here. Nearly every character on King of the Hill is weird or unsettling or mildly freakish in his or her own special way, and the show mines humor out of slow, deliberate reactions to all this downplayed insanity. You’ll see long, still shots of a character’s face (note: most of the characters on King of the Hill are reasonably ugly, and it’s the same with Napoleon Dynamite. Slowing down the pacing and putting Napoleon’s weird looking face in the spotlight for long, uncomfortable periods of time could be very, very funny) and you’ll get plenty of long stretches of silence. It’s the character’s discomfort mixed with out own discomfort that makes that kind of humor work.
Now take a joke from Napoleon Dynamite. Napoleon wants to make a good impression for the Japanese girl he’s been set up with through his teacher’s love computer, so he puts on a kimono and tries to be as Japanese as possible. We’ve got a gangly, ugly, awkward kid in a kimono trying to be Japanese, and while this isn’t the most sophisticated idea in the world it shouldn’t be too hard to get some good, uncomfortable humor out of this situation. But instead a breeze blows in, lifting up Napoleon’s kimono and exposing his tighty-whities. Then he says “DANGIT.” Then he grabs a fireplace poker, attempts to use it like a samurai sword, and hits himself in the testicles.
What hurts this show is a reliance on cheap humor like that. Humor that’s not actually funny in any way, shape, or form. The school’s bulletin outside is used for a couple sign gags, but one sign gag is just “consider our gym for your next function.” Towards the end of the episode, popular girl Summer fights a group of heavily Botoxed women, and the show focuses in on a character yelling, “Chick fight! Yeah!” These jokes are not jokes. These are just filler.
With a little bit of elbow grease and a couple changes here and there, Napoleon Dynamite could be an enjoyable little show. That much I know is true. But as I wrote this, what I started to wonder about was: how about you that actually liked the movie? Did you like this? Did you even watch this? I’d love to hear your thoughts- post on down in the comments if you’re a bonafide Napoleon Dynamite fan.
See you all next time!