Fifteen years after Napoleon Dynamite hit theaters, this cult-classic indie comedy's actors are back to tell all about the film that defined a generation. One of the stops on their nationwide 15th anniversary tour was in San Luis Obispo, at Cal Poly's Performing Arts Center on Feb. 4.
Before the cast appeared onstage for a lively question-and-answer session with audience members—many of whom were decked out in "Vote for Pedro" shirts and side-ponytails—a film screening took attendees back to 2004 when the film was first showing on the big screen. The massive movie projection filled up the full PAC stage, and with hundreds of audience members, the laughter-evoking moments were all the more roaring.
While the film ended up grossing $46.1 million at the box office, it was produced with a budget of just $400,000, meaning it earned more than 115 times its production budget. (For a comparison to another wildly popular movie: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone made just 7.8 times its production budget at the box office.)
Where did Napoleon Dynamite come from, and how did it capture the hearts and laughs of so many movie enthusiasts?
Before Napoleon Dynamite, there was a short film about a different geeky, Napoleon-esque teen, Seth. That film was called Peluca. Jon Heder, Jared Hess, and Jerusha Hess, once film students at Brigham Young University, decided to collaborate on the nine-minute short, which was selected for the Slamdance Film Festival. But Peluca became the inspiration for something much bigger.
With a meager budget, Jared and Jerusha decided to co-write their lovable, socially inept character into a full-fledged movie. Heder would once again star, but this time as the iconic Napoleon. Soon, the filmmakers and cast behind Napoleon Dynamite found themselves trading Slamdance for Sundance, where the film made its well-received debut.
- Photo Courtesy Of Cal Poly ASI
- MEET THE STARS Three of Napoleon Dynamite's most recognizable characters were present at Cal Poly on Feb. 4 to answer audience questions. From left to right: Jonathan Francis Gries (Uncle Rico), Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite), and Efren Ramirez (Pedro).
During the question-and-answer session after the Feb. 4 film screening, Jonathan Francis Gries (who played Uncle Rico) gave his insights into why he thinks the film found such success.
"I think that the film engenders an incredible positivity. It's nostalgic without even having any direct correlation to anybody's life, other than a universal theme," Gries said to the packed rows of audience members. "There are characters in the film that you relate to, [even though] you didn't know them directly. I think that ultimately it's a film about inclusion."
Napoleon Dynamite's character, exceedingly cringe-worthy at times, represents the inescapably awkward years that virtually all teenagers experience. His friendship with Pedro (played by Efren Ramirez, who was also in attendance Feb. 4) is, at first, one of necessity and solidarity: Both characters find themselves at the bottom of the social food chain, and that brings them together by default.
But it's the subtle moments where Napoleon supports his friend without asking for anything in return—from a custom-made campaign T-shirt to a soul-baring dance—that ultimately solidifies his timeless likability.
"I think by the end of the film, he cracks half a smile and you can see his eyeballs for, like, a few seconds," Heder said of his character. "That's his evolution."
Indeed, it is Napoleon's few and far between moments of character growth that make us all the more grateful for a measly half-smile—but is that not the epitome of witnessing an adolescent mature? The film makes us feel like a parent who cries tears of joy after receiving the first hug in months from their angsty teenager. The smaller his wholesome moments, the more Napoleon warms our nostalgic hearts.
And for the most devoted fans, Napoleon Dynamite was more than heartwarming: The evocative simplicity of the film can be something to cling to in hard times, too.
"We get stories [from fans] all the time—letters from soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq, people who have gone through incredible emotional trauma," Gries said onstage. "I never took this stuff that seriously: It's entertainment. But then when people start reaching out and tell you, 'This has been life changing. This pulled me from the brink of something really dark and terrible by watching this every day through the worst period of my life.' ... You have to see what that represents." Δ
Arts Writer Malea Martin is watching and re-watching Napoleon Dynamite. Send arts story tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.