When “Napoleon Dynamite” premiered 15 years ago, reviews were, well, mixed. The Orlando Sentinel called it “the funniest movie of the summer”; the BBC said it “revels in its own kookiness and is the most engaging teen movie to emerge from the States for many a year.”
CinemaBlend, on the other hand, opined that filmmaker Jared Hess “pushes Napoleon's stupidity as far as it can go in pursuit of cheap laughs, but achieves nothing that isn't easily forgettable.” And Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, “There is a kind of studied stupidity that sometimes passes as humor.”
But a decade-and-a-half later, the story of a Preston, Idaho, nerd, his family and friends remains ensconced in pop culture. And the Utah Film Center is celebrating its 15th anniversary with a fundraising screener and Q&A session that will feature much of the cast.
Following a screening at East High School on Friday, Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite), Efren Ramirez (Pedro), Jon Gries (Uncle Rico), Aaron Ruell (Kip) and Emily Dunn (Trisha) are scheduled to appear, along with writer/director Jared Hess, writer Jerusha Hess and producer/editor Jeremy Coon. They'll take questions from the audience.
The Utah Film Center is promising a “lively moderated conversation” about the movie that began as a school project for then-BYU students Hess and Heder, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was picked up and distributed by Fox Searchlight and Paramount, in association with MTV Films.
(The film went on to be named best movie by the MTV Movie & TV Awards and best comedy by the Teen Choice Awards in 2005.)
By the way, Salt Lake Tribune movie critic Sean P. Means gave “Napoleon Dynamite” 3½ stars (out of four), writing that “Hess and Heder allow Napoleon to remain his geeky self from beginning to end, a guy who — like his movie — dares to be different and succeeds.”
“Napoleon Dynamite” fundraiser
When • Friday, May 3. VIP photo op — 5:30-7 p.m.; screening — 7:30-9 p.m.; Q&A — 9-9:45 p.m. (The movie is rated PG for thematic elements and language; 82 minutes.)
Where • East High School auditorium, 840 S. 1300 East.
Tickets • $50 general admission tickets are available at utahfilmcenter.org. (The $150 VIP tickets are sold out.)
Sean P. Means’ 2004 review
Napoleon Dynamite, *** 1/2
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Napoleon Dynamite.
He is a student at Preston High School in Preston, Idaho. His interests include drawing, dancing, martial arts and jumping ramps on his bicycle. When something strikes his fancy, he proclaims, "Sweet!" And, though he is frequently picked on by bullies and irritated by his home life, he exudes an odd optimism that inspires those around him.
In short, he is one of the most original movie characters I have seen this year, and makes the low-budget movie that bears his name, "Napoleon Dynamite," a goofy charmer.
Napoleon (played by Jon Heder, who is set to graduate from Brigham Young University in August) lives with his energetic grandma (Sandy Martin) and his older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who spends hours a day "chatting with hot babes online." When Grandma is injured in a dune-buggy accident, Napoleon's obnoxious Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a preening door-to-door salesman who still relives his high-school football glory, moves in.
More annoyances await Napoleon at school, where the jocks pick on him and the popular girls, notably the perky Summer Wheatley (Haylie Duff), studiously ignore him. Napoleon makes a few friends among his fellow outcasts — like Deb (Tina Majorino), who earns money taking Glamour Shots around town, and Pedro (Efren Ramirez), an introverted Mexican-American who, with Napoleon’s support, runs for student-body president against Summer.
Director (and Heder's BYU classmate) Jared Hess makes the most of his indie-film limitations. He brings a sharp look and impeccable comic timing to the low-budget production, and smartly sprinkles enough familiar faces (like Dietrich Bader, from "The Drew Carey Show," as a martial-arts instructor) in among the unknowns.
Hess co-wrote the script with his wife Jerusha (who, in a further sign of the movie’s do-it-yourself vibe, also is the costume designer), and based these characters on his siblings and friends growing up in Preston. This helps explain why even the film’s oddest moments — like Rico’s experiments with a mail-order time machine, or the school’s Helping Hands team performing a sign-language version of “The Rose” — come off as spookily authentic.
Hess has an affinity for his oddball outcasts, and understands they are quite happy being who they are. In a more conventional movie, Napoleon would blossom out of his nerdy shell, shed the moonboots and straighten out his permed hair. But Hess and Heder allow Napoleon to remain his geeky self from beginning to end, a guy who — like his movie — dares to be different and succeeds.