Napoleon Dynamite positioned itself at the forefront of popular culture in 2004 due to its endlessly quotable cast of characters. The film’s relatable and awkward high school loser protagonist, and his equally quirky and awkward supporting players, struck a chord with a generation: influencing Halloween costumes, indie films and Urban Outfitters clothing collections for years to come.
Though it did ride a wave of popularity in 2004, that does not pigeonhole it as a cultural relic of the noughties. Some films do not age well. Endless quoting and dated references can resign them to the bargain bin of future generation’s petrol stations, from which they will be plucked, examined and met with decisive comments like “I can’t believe I used to find this funny”.
Napoleon Dynamite is not one of these films: it holds up to this day because, at its core, it is a film that champions the outsider. Its characters are the “weirdos” that sit on the fringes of high school watching the popular people get all the rewards and enjoyment out of life. They are funny, relatable and loveable, and they exist in a timewarped Middle America that is technically 2004, but could easily be 1984. Time moves differently in Napoleon’s Idaho; everything, and nothing, is dated.
The world of Napoleon Dynamite portrays a time in everyone’s youth where it feels like high school can drag on forever. It stands the test of time because through Napoleon, Pedro and Deb, we get a perspective from the margins of society that is seldom seen and oft dismissed by the mainstream popular kids: being young is overrated.
Our eponymous hero is the most awkward kid at school. Compared to everyone else, he seems a little off. Truth be told, he is a little off, but who wouldn’t be if they had to deal with the manchild duo of his Uncle Rico and his brother Kip?
Napoleon is continuously written off. He is bullied, ignored, used and made fun of by both his schoolmates and his Uncle Rico, yet he doesn’t let this dampen his fighting spirit or creative ambition.
He draws (albeit terribly), dances and dares to reach above his station when he asks the second most popular girl in school, Trisha Stevens, to the school dance. He wholeheartedly supports his friend Pedro in his attempt to become School President without even an ounce of trepidation. He is funny (albeit unintentionally), loyal and fiercely ambitious. He throws himself into anything despite facing the stark reality of his mundane and frankly annoying homelife.
When asked what he is going to do today. He answers, “Whatever I feel like doing, gosh!”.
Napoleon is a hero for the dorks, the nerds, the losers, the outcasts and anyone who has ever felt “a bit off”. He does what he wants, and doesn’t care what anyone thinks (except Deb, maybe). But ultimately, he just wants someone to play Tetherball with him.
Deb is awkward and quiet. When Napoleon comes over to speak to her about the bracelets she left at his house after she tried to sell him some, she stiffens up her shoulders and braces for small talk.
But it is not this awkwardness that defines her, she has aspirations herself. The only reason she was selling those bracelets door-to-door was to try and raise some money for College. As well as this, she has another creative outlet in order to make money: “Glamour Shots”.
She comes alive in the photography studio, energised by creative passion and inspiration. Sure, she may only be taking headshots of the likes of Rico and Kip for their own door-to-door sales business, but she is good at what she does and enjoys it.
Deb has an effortless way of speaking when she is in the studio; she is strong and knows exactly what her subjects need to get the right picture. She is in control and not awkward in the slightest.
Deb strikes up friendships with Napoleon and Pedro. Perhaps seeing in them the same mix of awkwardness and ambitiousness that she sees in herself.
Though he appears timid and soft spoken, Pedro is even more ambitious than Napoleon, and it is this shared strive for success that drives the friendship forward. Pedro dares to ask the MOST popular girl in school, Summer Wheatly, to the dance by baking her a cake and leaving it on her doorstep. She says “no”, but this does not deter his ambition to beat the odds. He decides to run for School President.
Pedro is not in it for the popularity contest that Summer will surely win. He genuinely thinks it is the right thing to do and that it would make his family proud.
He asks Napoleon: “Do you think anyone will vote for me?”
Napoleon replies: “Heck yes, I’d vote for you!”
Napoleon’s blindly optimistic attitude pairs with Pedro’s ambition, and together they become dynamic underdog running mates who defy all the odds to win the election after Napoleon’s spur of the moment dance skit saves the day.
By following their aspirations and creative endeavours on a whim, the pair show the whole school that if you vote for them, then all of your wildest dreams can come true.
The outcasts The weirdos The good guys win for once.
Our trio found each other through commonalities of alienation, awkwardness and ambition and came together to storm a win for the outcasts. But this is not their be all and end all, high school is only the beginning for them. They will not end up stuck in the timewarp that they found themselves in, wishing they were forever young.
The most striking example of this comes in one shot during the scenes at the school dance. Deb, Pedro and Napoleon stand on the edge of the dancefloor, looking at the other students dancing to “Forever Young” by Alphaville.
Here they stand, three teenagers on the literal outskirts of the rest of their contemporaries. They look at a crowd of people they are not a part of, but they are also looking at the stars that shine above them in the Gym Hall decorations. It is as if they are the only ones that can see these things.
This image shows us that they are not content with peaking in high school and wishing they were forever young like Napoleon’s Uncle Rico. Their futures lay ahead of them, shining brightly above all of their schoolmates. They want something better.
Deb will be a photographer. Pedro will be a proud President. Napoleon will continue doing whatever he feels like doing.
Napoleon Dynamite is an allegory for the outcasts. It is a film that has stayed forever young by showing us that staying young forever isn’t for everyone.