In 2004 when Napoleon Dynamite — a low-budget indie film about the strange and awkward characters in a small Idaho town — took mainstream America by storm, were we laughing at Napoleon, or with him? It's an interesting question to ponder as a viewer, but one even more fun to pose to Jerusha and Jared Hess, the film's writers.
Mike White, who's worked with the Hesses on Nacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos, moderated a panel at the Paley Center last night that focused on Fox's new Napoleon Dynamite animated series premiering this Sunday, and began by musing on this very idea. “Are Jared and Jerusha just making fun of ugly weird people?” he wondered aloud, though eventually concluded that once you get to know the pair, you realize that “ugly weird people are their people.”
He's quite right, considering that the entirety of Napoleon Dynamite is based on Jared Hess' former life as a kid growing up in Preston, Idaho. The llama in the film? Actually Hess' mother's. That scene in which a farmer shoots a cow in front of a school bus full of children? Totally happened. The character of Napoleon, in all of his ungainly glory, is actually a compilation of Hess and his awkward brood of younger brothers. This perhaps explains why he can do the voice almost better than Jon Heder, the star of the movie.
Hess, who also directed the movie, can do all the voices, actually, and told the actors during filming exactly how they should sound. Many of the film's supporting characters who were on last night's panel including Tina Majorino (Deb), Efren Ramirez (Pedro), Diedrich Bader (Rex), Sandy Martin (Grandma) and Jon Gries (Uncle Rico) — each of whom are voicing their characters on the TV show — concurred that there was slim-to-no room for improvisation. They received specific direction on just how to to create nuanced, if not nearly unbearably strange, characters.
So can that nuanced cast of weirdo characters translate into an animated half-hour television show? The short answer is not exactly, but the somewhat longer answer is it doesn't have to.
Last night's audience was treated to a sneak preview of the Napoleon Dynamite premiere: an episode in which a piece of chicken skin lobbed at Napoleon's forehead by brother Kip causes him to break out in serious acne, for which he uses a cream that induces unbridled rage, which Napoleon harnesses to ultimately become the rising star of an underground fight club.
Doesn't sound so Napoleon-esque, does it?
It isn't really. But what's lost in subtlety is gained back in hilarious and entertaining plot line. Until you see it, it's difficult to imagine Napoleon kicking ass in a deathmatch or stealing Kip's girlfriend, but surprisingly it works. Or not so surprisingly, considering the 15 or so writers working alongside Jared and Jerusha have such successful shows as The Simpsons, Seinfeld and Futurama on their resumes.
Still, the tenet on which the original film rested — that reality is often funnier than fantasy — still works its way into the show. The writer's room has a subscription to the Preston Citizen, Hess' hometown newspaper, which they scour each week for episode ideas. Preston residents just may recognize some of their small town kerfuffles in upcoming episodes.
But of course, for Jared Hess, it's an homage, not a diss. He's a product of that rural weirdness, and he owns it. “Ultimately,” he says, “we have a lot of love for people like that.”
Napoleon Dynamite premieres on Fox this Sunday, Jan. 15 at 8:30 p.m.