Napoleon Dynamite: Welcome Return or Unnecessary Retread?

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Nobody knows what happened eight years ago. That is a span of time so long it can only be measured in theories and equations by scientists pulling all-nighters scribbling on chalkboards. And even then a secretly genius janitor would have to walk in, solve the equation, and confirm, "Yes, 2004 happened." Eight years was a long time ago, basically.

So it's understandable if you've forgotten that 2004 was a year in which an unassuming indie movie named Napoleon Dynamite made the transition from BYU student film to mainstream pop culture juggernaut. Jared and Jerusha Hess's low-key comedy told the story of a mouth-breathing teenage misfit with an unlikely blaxploitation name and the gaggle of kitschy characters who surrounded him. What began as a highly amusing cult hit ended up an MTV-endorsed, overexposed pop culture annoyance that resulted in frat guys quoting dialogue, Jon Heder receiving additional starring roles, and those ubiquitous "Vote For Pedro" t-shirts. In retrospect this over-saturation certainly tarnished the original film's charms, which is a shame because it was really something special: proudly weird and unpredictable, with a unique sense of humor that worked mostly due to the movie's low-energy, low-budget aesthetic.

But now, just after we'd finally put this tired pop culture artifact out of our collective consciousness, the cast and creators have reunited to bring Napoleon Dynamite the animated series to Fox's Sunday-night Animation Domination lineup. Yay? Quick question: Who asked for this? No matter, the series now joins that special category of movie-to-cartoon adaptations that includes Ghostbusters, Beetlejuice, and Clerks. There's a precedent for this sort of thing, so the real question now is, "Is it any good?"

Napoleon Dynamite (2012) isn't terrible, let's put it that way. The animated comedy bar has been significantly lowered by Seth MacFarlane's franchise of Family Guy carbon copies, and it was recently planted deep beneath the earth's crust by Allen Gregory, a truly awful show that really worked hard for its cancellation. So by comparison, Napoleon Dynamite is okay, but it's definitely no Bob's Burgers or even latter-day The Simpsons. Despite the return of the movie's entire original cast, the show actually bears less stylistic similarity to the movie than it does to Family Guy. Where the movie had drawn-out scenes of unexplained awkwardness and musical interludes, the animated series has cut-away jokes and rapid-fire dialogue. In fact, I had to double check that Seth MacFarlane wasn't actually involved. He's not: In addition to the Hesses, the credited producer is Mike Scully, a Simpsons veteran. At the very least they all seem to be fans of MacFarlane's.

Anyway, Fox aired two new episodes on Sunday, "Thundercone" and "Scantronica." The first involved Napoleon using an acne medication that caused him to become aggressive and get involved in a secret fight club, while the second featured a computer which paired off the teenagers into romantic couplings against their wishes. All our favorite characters appeared, including lispy brother Kip (who's no longer married to LaFawnduh), Uncle Rico, Grandma, Tina the llama, Pedro, karate expert Rex, and Rex's bodybuilder wife. Guest-star Amy Poehler appeared as Kip's crazed love interest in the first episode, while the second episode featured voice work from Jennifer Coolidge and Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement (both of whom appeared in the Hesses' film Gentlemen Broncos).

On paper the premises and cast are terrifi,c and a number of jokes made me laugh—including a recurring bit about a Showbiz Pizza-esque animatronic band and Kip's skills with a Fushigi ball. But generally speaking, something about the whole enterprise just didn't click for me. It's hard to say whether it's because the execution was off, or if I was just too haunted by the tired spectre of the movie to truly enjoy the animated versions of its characters. But I'll allow that it's completely possible for this thing to become something more watchable in the future, if it ever leaves behind its own mythology and delves into more surprising territory. Unlike with Allen Gregory, Napoleon Dynamite's characters are rooted in an essential sweetness, plus the show's world is an open and appealing place where observational humor can safely live alongside absurdity.

So while I'm mixed about whether Napoleon Dynamite works as an animated series, I remain baffled about why it exists in the first place, particularly if its tone and energy are so different from the movie. I'm not saying that an animated TV series adaptation is a failure if it departs from its source material, but I suspect Napoleon Dynamite would be more enjoyable for viewers with no knowledge of the original movie whatsoever and came to these characters fresh. I can't help but think that if this animated series was a completely new enterprise, its originality could've been as celebrated as that of Bob's Burgers. As it is now, Napoleon Dynamite is merely a curio from a foregone era of trucker hats and The Simple Life, and I think we can all agree those are times best left forgotten.


What did you think of Napoleon Dynamite the animated series? Was it fresh enough to make it worth your time?

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