Napoleon Dynamite (Hess, 2004) is a story that portrays social misfits authentically and, in spite of unlikely odds, gives them victory. This is done by creating protagonists with unique contexts, making good use of the elements of visual storytelling, and by having each major character deal with and overcome their own flaws and foibles.
Great efforts are made to establish the uniqueness and depth of Napoleon (John Heder) and his cohorts. Unlike many other “teen” films and TV shows that take place in high school (pretty much anything on Nickelodeon or the Disney channel), Napoleon, Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and Deb (Tina Majorino) are not set apart from the crowd by an intelligence that makes them socially awkward, but rather because they seem unaware of or uninterested in conforming to social norms. Even though Napoleon tells some tall tales to make people think he’s tough and masculine, the tales he tells are not really believable, and are definitely not “normal.” Despite these attempts to prove his masculinity, Napoleon is not afraid to express himself through both visual art and dance, which earn him some snickers from the alpha males at his school. The other characters also make decisions and pursue actions that, while not counter-cultural in themselves seem very unlikely or unexpected for the character’s context (Pedro being the new kid from Mexico) or the manner in which the pursue it (Deb selling key chains door to door).
The décor and costuming chosen for this movie also deepen the characters’ authenticity. The items we see in the Dynamite household suggest eccentricity, such as a twenty-foot corded phone that enables Napoleon to talk outside and a large bobcat skin hanging on the living room wall (which perhaps inspired his tales of wolverine hunting in Alaska). In Pedro’s house, we see an abundance of Latin American Catholic icons, including prayer candles with pictures of the “Holy Santos” that adorn the edge of his bathtub. Additionally, his bolo ties and signature mustache make him stand out culturally and visually from the rest of the Idahoan crowd. Contrasting Pedro’s appearance, Napoleon has a thrift store wardrobe, with shirts sporting horses, wolves, helicopters and palm trees, while most of his classmates wear polos or other nondescript shirts. This probably has more to do with Napoleon’s economic status than an esoteric fashion sense, but it definitely says something about his ignorance of his culture’s expectations (this is further contrasted by his choice to buy a suit modeled on a female mannequin for the dance). Deb’s dynamic hairstyles, fanny pack and homemade prom dress, contrasted with the preppy Summer (Haylie Duff) and Trisha (Emily Dunn), reveal her character to be less concerned about the politics and drama of high school and more so with creativity and practicality.
The challenges that arise for each character are compelling in the context of their lives and personalities. Like real life, each of the characters has some kind of flaw or quirk that complicates their relationships with others. Napoleon, for instance, makes up stories about hunting wolverines and his prowess with a bō staff in order to impress people. He uses these stories as a form of escapism, to mask the fact that he frequently gets beat up by Randy (Bracken Johnson), has to deal with his older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) and doesn’t have anyone with whom to play tetherball. This distance between his fantasy and reality is something he deals with throughout the story until he finally overcomes it in the climactic dance sequence. Napoleon does not appear to have planned to dance in front of the whole school, and was doing it mostly because he and Pedro didn’t know they needed a skit to follow his campaign speech. It was a spontaneous “follow-your-heart” moment, revealing his loyalty and friendship, and allowing his friendship with Deb to be repaired, which had become strained due to the scheming of his uncle Rico (Jon Gries). It also gave him the affirmation from his peers that he had been seeking, so that he no longer had a need to tell lies to make himself feel strong. Similarly, Pedro battles and overcomes his alienation from the dominant culture, becoming the class president of the school he just started attending, and Deb overcomes her loneliness and insecurity resulting in and by way of being accepted into Napoleon and Pedro’s circle of friendship. None of these characters’ paths came without setbacks, and in fact, Napoleon Dynamite does a much better job of depicting the disappointment and strife that come with non-conformity than do those misinterpreters of Robert Frost who think the road-less-traveled is paved with gold (or paved at all). But it is in the uncertainty and unlikelihood of their quest that makes the victories all the sweeter.
Whether it involved drawing posters, dancing, offering protection, sharing tater tots, taking glamor shots or making do-dangle key chains for class-election favors, these three outsiders proved to the world that they could use what skills they had to band together and thrive in a place where they didn’t fit in. And that’s the message Napoleon Dynamite offers to its viewers—that conformity is not required for all your wildest dreams to come true.