Simon Moore reviews the first episode of the Napoleon Dynamite animated series…
You saw the film. You raised a quizzical brow at his moonboots. You scrolled past the endless dance scene rip-offs on YouTube. Now Napoleon Dynamite has his own animated TV sitcom. Replacing the spiteful and unfunny Allen Gregory in Channel 4’s late Tuesday night adult cartoon slot, Napoleon Dynamite offers all the gloriously unhinged characters from the 2004 film with none of the snail-like pace that was, arguably, its biggest flaw.
So what’s changed? Preston, Idaho is still a rural backwater stuck in a timewarp, but somehow it feels less of a sleepy one horse town – more a manic farming community, tied together by bizarre traditions, inept institutions and a combined IQ number roughly equal to the population.
Thundercone functions mostly as a re-introduction to the Dynamite family. There’s Napoleon (Jon Heder), an awkward, moody teenager convinced that he’s interesting and dangerous. He’s nicely summed up as “that annoying kid in town you just wanna see bad stuff happen to.” His brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) is a mummy’s boy in his mid-thirties, still living with his Grandma (Sandy Martin), a practically-minded woman who likes bloodsports, quad-biking and comfortable shoes. Completing the family is Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a man almost as obsessed with get-rich-quick schemes as he is with his failed high school football career. Schoolmates Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and Deb (Tina Majorino) get a quick look-in this episode, but Thundercone is really all about Kip and Napoleon. More on them next episode.
Kip fuels a lifelong rivalry with his younger brother when he takes the last piece of gas station fried chicken and throws a greasy chunk of it at Napoleon’s forehead. Our boy soon breaks out in horrendous acne. Uncle Rico and an incredibly unqualified pharmacist recommend Rack-U-Tane, an illegal skin cream with side effects like lust, increased pain threshold and fits of unbridled rage.
Soon Napoleon is impressing his PE teacher with his new-found aggression and freakish feats of strength. He’s invited to join the Pioneer Punch Club, Preston’s worst kept secret and staple Wednesday night bloodsport. All this runs parallel with Kip’s blossoming romance with Misty, a girl he met on the internet. Unfortunately for him, she’s still weaning herself off bad boys, and the sight of a half-naked Napoleon doing pull-ups on the swing frame is too much for her. The power of Rack-U-Tane has quite literally gone to Napoleon’s head as he finally gets to take something away something that belonged to Kip.
Unusually for an American sitcom, there’s no overbearing lesson or moral to be learnt from this story. This show is here to point and laugh at life’s little (and large) pecularities, and Preston is a town more peculiar than most. Writers Jared and Jerusha Hess gather and build up an arsenal of the kind of punchy, left-field laughs we used to get from The Simpsons in the ‘90s or Futurama in the ‘00s (pronounce that decade however you like), and it even looks like they can keep it up.
With the entire original cast back to reprise their roles, there’s a definitive sense of fun being had in the recording booth. The vocal performances benefit greatly, but the the deadpan nature of the humour makes the animation seem strangely static at times. Such impressions soon pass, as director Dwayne Carey-Hill makes the most of the cartoon medium, allowing for comedic gems like spray-on abs and The Man With No Face.
One of the main criticisms of the original film was that it felt like laughing down at inferior human beings. But what about now? Are these characters inferior? They’re certainly not pitiable; you never feel sorry for Napoleon or his family and friends. They seem quite happy the way they are. We don’t wish they were cooler or more intelligent. Why should we? We love Homer Simpson’s constant displays of idiocy. We adore Philip J. Fry’s oblivious, doe-eyed adventures in space. Napoleon Dynamite isn’t quite so obviously lovable, but it is hard not to find yourself in his corner every step of the way. And what more can we ask of a series of coloured-in drawings?
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.