The first thing I should say about “Napoleon Dynamite” the FOX animated series is that I hated “Napoelon Dynamite” the 2004 live-action film.
I found the movie airless, joyless and seemingly so full of contempt for its outcast characters – including Jon Heder as the oblivious title character – that I only got to the end because I kept hoping to see what it was that had made it such a beloved cult object in some circles.
I say this for two reasons. First, because if you’re among those who love the movie, you may as well stop reading, because I’m not approaching the show (it debuts Sunday night at 8:30) from the same perspective. It’s close enough in tone and style – and features the entire returning cast and creators Jared and Jerusha Hess – that if you still have affection for Napoleon, Pedro and company after all these years, I imagine you’ll enjoy them in animated form.
But second, I say all of this because I assumed that, given my antipathy for the source material, I would hate “Napoleon Dynamite” the series just as much – and I didn’t. I don’t even know that I would go so far as to say I liked it, but the transition to animation works wonders with these characters and their rural Idaho world.
The Hesses, working in concert with veteran “Simpsons” producer Mike Scully, have taken advantage of the format change to make Napoleon’s universe strange enough that he fits more than he ever did in a flesh-and-blood setting.
At a press tour session for the show a few days ago, Heder referred to the characters from the movie – also including Aaron Ruell as Napoleon’s nerdy brother Kip, Efren Ramirez as his simple-minded immigrant friend Pedro, and Tina Majorino as the pining Deb, among others – as “two-dimensional,” then immediately caught himself and asked, “Am I ripping on the film now?” But I would say he was onto something. Napoleon has his quirks, but his lack of affect and his tunnel vision makes him come across in only two dimensions, and he then works much better in a more surreal animated context.
Napoleon still has a simple life involving school, Kip, Grandma (Sandy Martin) and Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), but things tend to get exaggerated in a hurry. In the series premiere episode, an unlicensed acne medication gives Napoleon brief bursts of super strength, and he’s recruited to join a secret fight club oriented entirely around farm life. (When we get a glimpse of the other fighters training, they’re working out with farm equipment, like a guy doing push ups using pump handles.) The second episode (which FOX is airing Sunday night at 9:30) finds the kids in Napoleon’s class all paired up with their ideal romantic partner by a computer their teacher built (called Scantronica), and everyone goes along with its ridiculous calculations as if these are the people they’re going to marry.
The tone overall feels a bit like the more absurd episodes of “King of the Hill,” where a down-to-earth life often becomes ridiculous. Nobody’s as well-rounded as Hank or Bobby – though Kip Dynamite takes on more shadings than the other characters, with the show almost admiring his weird fixations on contact juggling or the music of the robotic band at the local Chuck E. Cheese knock-off – but the combination of the characters and the style made the whole shebang much easier for me to take than the movie. Still, I didn’t feel any need to watch later episodes; even a cartoon Napoleon is a character I don’t give a toss about.
As with ABC’s failed “Charlie’s Angels” remake, NBC’s new “The Firm” sequel (which was a massive flop in its opening night ratings), this is a spin-off project involving a brand name that’s many years old, though here the gap is shorter and most of the original talent is involved. Eight years later, does anyone still care about Napoleon, Kip and Pedro? We’ll see, but at least it’s better than “Allen Gregory.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org