Eight years ago, Napoleon Dynamite became the little indie hit that provided people with enough impression fodder to fill that small gap of time between the release of Anchorman and Borat. “Vote For Pedro” shirts became popular for a good few months, and exasperated people saying “Gosh!” in their best Napoleon voices soon began to grow tiresome. So here we are, 2012, looking at Napoleon Dynamite, the newest show Fox has decided to place in their Animation Domination block along with the ever-present The Simpsons and whatever Seth MacFarlane feels like putting on the air. The film’s original writing team Jared and Jerusha Hess write the series premiere, but the entire series is an overblown caricature of what made the original film enjoyable.
Now you may be saying, “what about those characters I loved from the movie? Surely they are still there?” Well, yes and no. The names remain the same, but the animated characters focus on one aspect of the film’s characters’ personalities and dial them up to 11. For example, Kip is now a thirty-something man-child, desperate for his grandmother’s approval. Pedro is deeply based in Spanish mysticism, Deb is infatuated with Napoleon and Starla is a she-beast, more likely to growl than actually talk. The show also completely throws away the Lafawnduh character, asking the audience to forget that she and Kip were actually married at the end of the film.
But Napoleon Dynamite the animated series desperately tries to shoehorn in as many references to the film as possible in the two-episode series premiere. We see a restaurant that specializes in tater tots, tetherball matches and a dumbing down of the people of Idaho, which the film was much more careful about.
One episode of Napoleon Dynamite actually features more plot in the first act than the entire film did. What made the film different was the slow, almost indeterminable amount of time passing and that we saw these characters reacting in their own natural ways to whatever situations they were thrown into. In the film, when Pedro decides to run for class president (the film’s main story arc, which doesn’t begin until an hour in), Napoleon does what he can to help, including a stylized dance to Jamiroquai. It makes sense because Napoleon is a friend to those close to him. However in the first episode “Thundercone,” we have Napoleon join a fight club after acne cream fills him with rage and leads him to steal Kip’s newest girlfriend, voiced by Amy Poehler. The second episode “Scantronica Love” does seem more grounded in the sensibility of what the show should become, but not by much, as a scantron machine matches students with their ideal mates. Pedro ends up with Summer, Deb with Napoleon’s enemy Don, and Napoleon gets matched up with a new Japanese student because of course, she has samurai skills.
Both episodes do have some laughs, such as a pizza place that Kip likes to frequent that features an animatronic animal and Abraham Lincoln-starring band, but the show comes off like a show from talented creators that isn’t being handled correctly. This reminds me of several animated shows, the first being Sit Down, Shut Up, which was a promising idea from Mitchell Hurwitz, creator of Arrested Development and shares some of its animated style with Napoleon Dynamite. The other is another once-popular indie hit turned into a prime time animated series, Clerks, which was far superior and knew how to take its characters and translate them into a different format that worked.
This all may sound damning for Napoleon Dynamite, and from the first two episodes, it doesn’t look good, but animated shows usually do take some time to find their legs. Early episodes of The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park don’t even come close to what they eventually were capable of. That being said, I feel like Napoleon Dynamite is more likely to go the Allen Gregory route than become a series with dozens of seasons, but there is a bit of an increase in quality from the first to second episode. The Hesses also have a wide variety of former collaborators to join them, such as Jennifer Coolidge and Jemaine Clement in the second episode, who worked with the Hesses on Gentlemen Broncos.
Napoleon Dynamite needs to find a mixture of what made the film fun and what makes the half-hour animated formula work. If not, Napoleon Dynamite might want to try to restart Kip and Uncle Rico’s “time machine” to take them back to the glory days of 2004.