In many ways, I’m part of the problem. I eat meat, I shop at big box stores, I drive a car, I don’t very read often, I don’t stay up on the news, I write a blog that celebrates TV shows, comic books and video games. Specifically, though, I’m part of the Napoleon Dynamite problem. I saw the flick in the theatres when it was in its incredibly limited run in 2004. And I loved it. I was among the throngs of fans that quoted every remotely humorous line and did everything possible to affect my own Napoleon or Kip impressions. Like I said, part of the problem.
It’s eight years later and Napoleon Dynamite is coming back – to TV, in animated form, with all the original creative talent plus one Simpsons writer. One of the things that makes the movie so successful is its insane obsession with the details of its characters’ universe. Another is it’s shapeless non-narrative that just allows you to hang out with the characters. Television is an intensely plot-driven medium; TV chews up and spits out stories at an alarming rate. This speed increases dramatically in animation and we’ve been conditioned by two-and-a-half decades with the Simpsons to take in 3 or 4 complete stories in 22 minutes.
And this is primarily why the TV series doesn’t work. Actually, scratch that – the reasons this thing doesn’t work are too numerous to mention. Herewith, then, an exercise in futility:
1.) The film derived a lot of humor from the mundane, everyday lives of these characters. They functioned within the rules that govern the real world, and a particularly boring version of the real world, at that. The pilot episode of the series takes it’s marching orders from its medium and not from its source material, trading in jokes about awkward characters for jokes about pimple cream that gives its user super-human strength. Oh, it also burns through the floor like Alien blood. The pilot ends with a battle royale between Napoleon and Kip (on stilts, no less) in a Klingon-style death area in front of an audience of hundreds. JUST LIKE YOU REMEMBER FROM THE MOVIE.
2.) Non-emotive human characters are funny. To prepare for this write-up, I watched the film again. Efren Ramirez’ ultra dead-pan Pedro is a supernatural asset to the movie. His complete lack of emotion is unsettling – and pretty funny as a result. But a non-emotive cartoon character? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s a still drawing. And that’s just not funny.
3.) In transition, subtext became supertext. Instead of Deb quietly, awkwardly flirting with Napoleon, she expresses cartoon lust for him. Instead of technology being charmingly out of date, a teacher uses a large, punch-card style computer. Instead of learning how to dance through sweat and practice, Napoleon becomes fluent at Japanese for the purpose of a lazy joke. The movie actually does an admirable job of subtly stating its themes, but the show any seems to know how to shout.
4.) Both of tonight’s episodes featured chainsaws used as weapons. Use that information however you best see fit.
5.) The movie is sorta dark. There’s this oppressive atmosphere of despair that colors all of the proceedings. It helps the audience identify with characters that aren’t all that likeable. But the cartoon is vibrant and colorful and features lakes and cornfields instead of desolate desert roads and pathetic, outdated houses. The setting is the same Idaho town in name only.
This is going to sound like too much of a compliment, but I’m reminded of the mostly-terrible Clerks animated series. Both shows struggle to capture what was interesting about the source material while embracing a new format. But while Clerks managed to crank out some amazing absurdist jokes and a compelling art style, I can’t see any redeeming qualities in Napoleon Dynamite. Even when the creative roster is filled with names I respect like Mike Scully, Julie Thacker, Peter Avanzino and Tom Gamil, and the voice cast lists people like Phil LaMar, Maurice LaMarche, Amy Poehler and Jennifer Coolidge, I can’t get past the aggressive crumminess of this show.
Because I’ll never be on this topic again: The Clerks Animated Series. The second episode is a clip show, but as it’s the second episode, it can only refer back to the pilot and things that happened earlier in the episode. It’s subversive and creative and hilarious. I’m gonna temp SOPA a bit and post these episodes.
Here’s the pilot:
And the second episode.
The rest of the series is up there on youtube. It mostly gets worse from there. But it’ll be a better ride than Napoleon Dynamite.