One could be forgiven for thinking that the film Napoleon Dynamite, though released in 2004, was actually made in the ’80s. There’s the film’s aesthetic, of course, which seemed culled from some woebegone strip mall of that era, but there’s also the sense that the film has always been a part of our cultural landscape, like Abraham Lincoln or Lassie. The characters and the swamp of irony/anti-irony that they inhabited felt instantly iconic and soon enough, they were omnipresent, their faces staring lifelessly out at us from dolls, postcards, and shot glasses. Very quickly, they were a kind of code for the hipster’s eternal battle between sarcasm and sincerity. Jared and Jerusha Hess, who as a team wrote and directed Napoleon Dynamite, had managed to flatten magical realism into a kind of dork surrealism, creating a film that was the antithesis of, say, Amélie.
This is all to say that Napoleon Dynamite achieved a cultural penetration that we still can’t escape. The latest evidence is Fox’s new animated series, Napoleon Dynamite, produced by the Hesses and featuring the original cast voicing the very same characters from the movie. Which raises the question: Why make cartoon characters out of a cast whose greatest comedic virtue is their natural ability to appear cartoonish? The very idea seems like degradation, like watching a pixilated avatar of Roger Federer playing tennis. Listening to Jon Heder’s idiosyncratic voice—indignant, over-confident, and breathless—emanating from an animated character is like being forced to watch an animated version of Celebrity Rehab. On the other hand, now the creative team behind the enterprise can give full range to their imaginations, embellishing brilliantly on a movie that was the stylistic progenitor of a bunch of awesome Skittles ads.
Following the template of every animated Fox show, Napoleon Dynamite is laden with cultural allusions for a savvy audience used to devouring pop culture. It’s one of those insider situations where the pleasure comes from recognizing what the joke references rather than in the joke itself. The monkeyshines come fast and furious, designed as sight gags and one-liners for an audience that’s likely drifting in and out, not fully committed to an entire half-hour episode. Not surprisingly, no new comedic ground is carved out in either of the first two episodes. Acne cream transforms Napoleon into a fierce warrior in one, while a computer program sets up students with their perfect romantic match in another. It’s not that these ideas are bad or even poorly written; it’s just that it’s well-trod ground.
The film embodied style over substance. How things were expressed was more important than what was expressed, and in rebooting the characters for the TV show, they’re simply delivering old material. The catchphrases that captured our imagination nearly 10 years ago now have as much comedic snap as hearing somebody shout, “Who let the dogs out?” or “Where’s the beef?”
The characters are readymade jokes unto themselves, and the plots unfolding around them seem like little more than scenes found on the film’s cutting room floor. The show seems more worthy of a Saturday-morning slot, where it has the chance of appealing to a child’s delight in the pointlessly absurd, rather than on Sunday night where appetites are a little meatier.