It’s hard to know just exactly when weird became cool, but there are at least landmarks we can point to along the timeline. One of those moments was ten years ago, upon the wide release of the strange smash Napoleon Dynamite. The film has its large cult following to this day, but it also managed to firmly enter the mainstream and stay there for some time. With a budget of $400,000, it managed to gross over $41 million! That doesn’t even count the endless amounts of merchandise generated by the movie and its weirdos. Dry to the point of absurdity, the humor running through the narrative entered and influenced the pop culture lexicon for years, and still exists to an extent today. “Vote for Pedro” became a universally known command, and I think I have quoted Uncle Rico’s football scene more than any other movie scene in the past decade. The plot is almost impossible to find, but that didn’t and still doesn’t matter.
The characters battled through varying levels of social ineptitude, and we were happy to watch them do so. Kip was ahead of his time with his chat rooms and cage fighting; we may perhaps even look at him as a trendsetter. Pedro was just the type of quiet entrant into a surreally chaotic world we love to observe, like Jesse in Breaking Bad or Bob Benson (swoon) in Mad Men. Sandy Martin, who has other experience as a mean (grand)parent (in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), stretched the limits of what our elders are capable of getting out of their final years. Napoleon, of course, made it ok for the rest oof us awkward dancers, allowing us to laugh at his lack of cool while also admiring hs lack of desire to be cool. I don’t know if I have his moves, but I can rest assured that there are people out there who appreciate it when you lose yourself in dance. Sometimes I just can’t help myself. Jon Heder’s minuscule salary didn’t end up mattering much, as this role turned him into a legitimate Hollywood name, and he ended up turning in a solid performance in the underrated Blades of Glory, holding his own against the tour de force of Chazz Michael Michaels.
It’s hard for me to go on and on about the movie itself, for at this point my use of quotes and phrases dwarf my memories of experiencing the film for the first time. Director Jared Hess, crowned by a GWW friend as “a Mormon who wanted to prove that Mormons could make movies,” managed to create a film resonant with a generation of viewers despite having almost no story, money, or known talent. Also he did this in Idaho. In fact, this movie — for better or worse — essentially forms my whole opinion of what Idaho is like. In the end, Napoleon is kind of Batman, stepping in to save the day for Pedro without expecting anything in return, dancing for himself and not for the applause of the students who have pariahed him.
Napoleon Dynamite taught me many things — about love, Idaho, dancing, and the romantic powers of tetherball. Moreover, it sends some sort of message about passions, about throwing oneself into activities and hobbies with no regard for the social consequence. Napoleon is one of our strangest onscreen heroes but a hero nonetheless, sticking to his principles and never compromising just to go along with what society outlines for his peers. People come and go, but the dance will never die.