Napoleon Dynamite

This TV season, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Rowan Kaiserand Todd VanDerWerff talk about Napoleon Dynamite.

Napoleon Dynamite debuts tonight on Fox at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, with a second episode airing at 9:30 p.m. Eastern.

Rowan: The question “Why does this exist?” has been attached to the Napoleon Dynamite cartoon ever since it was announced. Most of that was based around the idea that the 2004 cult comedy had seen its reputation decline, and that nobody was really clamoring to see more of it anymore, eight years later. This much may be true to a point, but hey, I could see someone saying exactly the same thing about Buffy The Vampire Slayer in the 1990s, and that turned out slightly differently than one might have expected.

I generally would have agreed with that. I was certainly not a fan of the film, after all, so the series didn’t appeal to me directly. But, as the Buffy example and many, many others throughout television history indicate, it is entirely possible for shows to transcend their source material. Not that I got excited, but hey, I just wanted to demonstrate the possibility that you shouldn’t be terribly surprised if, some years from now, people tell you that Napoleon Dynamite the cartoon is one of the best shows on television, and you totally can’t judge it from the movie!

That’s not the case for right now, though. These first two episodes demonstrate that it’s quite happy to ape the form of its film. Which is not to say that it doesn’t make improvements to the movie. The slice-of-life comedy lends itself well to half-hour chunks and smaller stories. The jokes come faster, the characters learn their lessons more often, and the show doesn’t wear out its welcome in its 22 minutes. That may be damning with faint praise, but at least it’s some praise. And there is some room for growth – the animation, for example, is technically quite impressive and smooth, although stylistically it’s understandably ugly like the source material. The best aspects of the show tend to be when it goes into sight gags, like when Napoleon daydreams about playing volleyball with aliens on the moon.

But beyond comparing the show to the movie, Napoleon Dynamite seems especially inessential compared to its peers in the Fox animation block. Here’s the style of humor: two-dimensional stereotypes engage in broadly comic situations. Those situations get resolved in an apparently conventional fashion, only to have the convention upended. For example, in the funniest scene of the two episodes airing tonight, Napoleon is filled with “unbridled rage” and goes on a rampage through his gym class on the football field, which involves launching a bully into the air across the field. Meanwhile, the band is practicing, and the teacher is telling the tuba player “You don’t hold a tuba like that. You aim it skyward!” The bully drops down into the scene, but instead of the tuba, he crushes the teacher.

If that kind of thing sounds familiar, it probably should – it’s the same style of humor Seth MacFarlane shows have been using for years. Family Guy is more experimental with it. American Dad is more manic. But The Cleveland Show? That’s...an unfortunately apt comparison to Napoleon Dynamite. This show is a little better than Cleveland – it seems to like its characters more, and it doesn’t quite have that too-cool-for-school vibe that MacFarlane shows have. But it’s that same kind of anti-humor, and the pace is comparable. So maybe it’ll be totally redundant in the lineup and be canceled. Or maybe the same people who think that The Cleveland Show is funny, but only when baked, will love it. All I know, it’ll take some doing to get me to come back. That Napoleon Dynamite is not as terrible as I might have expected doesn’t actually make it good, or funny.

Todd: There’s still no good reason for a Napoleon Dynamite cartoon to exist in the year 2012, but I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. This isn’t exactly a recommendation, since I really wasn’t a fan of the movie and I only liked it a little more than you, but I agree, Rowan, that this is better than The Cleveland Show, and it’s also a fair sight better than Allen Gregory. It’s also nice to have seen two episodes to know that the show’s humor has more or less found itself. (This was something Gregory really struggled with.)

The show’s executive producer and showrunner is Mike Scully, famed for the years when many fans claim The Simpsons was at its worst, and the humor he brings to the show is roughly similar to what he brought to The Simpsons. Fortunately, that humor meshes well with the world Jared and Jerusha Hess created for the big screen, and something about translating that material to the animated world suits it well. At TCA, Jerusha Hess said Jared Hess’ original plan for the movie involved UFOs and Bigfoot, and having these wackier elements around (though neither UFOs nor Bigfoot appear directly in these two episodes) makes it easier to accept the characters as cartoons than it was when they were in a low-budget indie film milieu.

Napoleon Dynamite isn’t great, but it made me smile a number of times, chuckle a couple of times, and laugh out loud at least once (at a running gag about an animatronic band). Scully and the Hesses have something here, and if any fans of the movie still exist, they might find themselves happily surprised. Hell, non-fans might find a few things to enjoy here, too.

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