Napoleon Dynamite is one of those rare films that is superseded by its own cultural relevance. The reason for its somewhat unexpected cult classic status is a combination of multiple factors. Though Napoleon Dynamite‘s story doesn’t really seem to be about anything much, it touches on aspects of youth and modern life in a way that makes it immensely relatable.

Napoleon Dynamite follows its titular protagonist as he navigates the difficulties of adolescence hindered by the fact that he doesn’t entirely fit in with his classmates. Napoleon (Jon Heder) lives with his grandmother and older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), but it’s not until a chance visit from Deb (Tina Majorino) and a meeting with Pedro (Efren Ramirez) that he begins to find his confidence. Napoleon Dynamite‘s story is a collection of loosely related events that are tied together by the idea that life in Preston, Idaho is far from fulfilling for the film’s characters.

Describing the indistinct but undeniable appeal of Napoleon Dynamite isn’t easy, because what makes it great is incredibly difficult to define. It deserves a spot in our Hall of Fame for several reasons, but it all boils down to the overall feeling it inspires. Napoleon Dynamite‘s brilliance is in its relentless, cringing awkwardness, which seems crafted specifically to thinly veil one of the most disarmingly sweet and casually hilarious movies of all time.

The Quiet Brilliance Of Napoleon Dynamite

Jon Heder as Napoleon in Napoleon Dynamite making a phone call

Of course, even the best concept would fall apart if built on poor foundations, and Napoleon Dynamite is no exception. Though its premise is something of a tough sell, it’s backed up by writing that feels simultaneously personal and universal. It’s got the feel of rough-around-the-edges relatability enjoyed by films such as Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, except it takes its quirkiness to a whole new level. Watching Napoleon Dynamite back even years later, it’s plain to see exactly why so many of its lines have been immortalized in their quotability – it’s full of the sort of unexpected absurdist humor that feels timeless in its brilliance.

Good writing is nothing if it’s not brought to life convincingly, and Jon Heder is remarkable as Napoleon. There are few movie characters that are able to capture the same sense of combined charisma and sympathy; Napoleon is utterly unique, and yet most of the audience will see elements of themselves in him. Heder is backed up by brilliant supporting performances, particularly by Ramirez and Ruell, who contribute massively to the overall comedic feel of the movie in their understated ridiculousness.

Napoleon Dynamite Hides An Unexpected Depth

Efren Ramirez as Pedro and Jon Heder as Napoleon in Napoleon Dynamite

At its heart, Napoleon Dynamite is an outsider story. Napoleon is a loner who often finds himself targeted by bullies, but over the course of the film, he comes to find friends who appreciate him for who he is. In this, Napoleon Dynamite‘s outermost layer delivers an uplifting message about the redundancy of conformity and the importance of finding people who understand you.

Beneath that, there’s another key element at the core of Napoleon Dynamite: acceptance. Not only does Napoleon find friends who accept him, but he comes to accept himself as a direct result of their friendship. The idea of acceptance is one that runs throughout the movie and is particularly notable in its various subplots. Kip also finds someone who accepts him: his internet girlfriend LaFawnduh, who appears to love him for all his quirks. Paying off Kip’s relentless naivety with a legitimate romantic connection is far more powerful than it deserves to be, but it contributes massively to Napoleon Dynamite‘s happy ending.

It’s also important to note that one of Napoleon Dynamite‘s less wholesome characters, Uncle Rico, finds a form of acceptance, too, albeit in a far less peaceful manner. After spending most of the film ruminating on his missed opportunities and gently bullying his nephews, Rico’s actions catch up to him. Beaten and dejected, he returns to his solitude, finally appearing to give up on recapturing his glory days. Having Rico accept his present situation and begin to move on also comes with a hopeful message of acceptance, and it comes in exactly the manner he deserves.

On the surface, Napoleon Dynamite may seem like a strange exercise in directionless quirky comedy, but there’s so much happening underneath its quotable one-liners and bizarre comedic moments. Though it’s subtle, the film shows Napoleon’s confidence quietly growing thanks to his budding friendships, and it culminates in a truly unforgettable scene in which he quite literally demonstrates his newfound confidence to his entire school. It’s a payoff that’s in keeping with the singular comedic tone of the film, but it also further endears Napoleon to the audience by demonstrating the lengths he’s willing to go to for the people who appreciate him.

Though Napoleon Dynamite may not be for everyone, there’s a brilliance in its storytelling that’s often overlooked. It avoids the predictable conventions of Hollywood comedies or coming-of-age movies, instead delivering a deceptively powerful examination of what it’s like to be an outsider. As evidenced by its lasting legacy and continuing cultural relevance, Napoleon Dynamite is truly deserving of a spot in the Hall of Fame.

Rating: 85%

Summary: Napoleon Dynamite‘s biggest (and perhaps only) shortcoming is that it simply isn’t for everyone. Its uniquely subtle and bizarre humor struggles to land with some, which is the only significant blemish on an otherwise brilliant piece of cinema.

Highlight: Napoleon Dynamite‘s climactic dance scene is iconic: it’s a triumph not just for the character himself, but for every outsider who strives to find their own confidence.