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The Reign of Napoleon Dynamite

The strange story of an annoying little movie that conquered America

Napoleon Dynamite

Cast of 'Napoleon Dynamite' Shondrella Avery, Jon Greis, Jon Heder, Haylie Duff, Efren Ramirez and Tina Majorino at the MTV Movie Awards 2004, June 5th, 2004.

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IN EARLY APRIL, IDAHO STATE REP. LARRY C. BRADFORD stood before the Legislature to present Resolution No. 29, honoring the state’s most significant cultural contribution in memory. “Be it resolved by the Legislature of the State of Idaho,” he began, launching into the twenty-point bill: “Whereas Tater Tots figure prominently in this film thus promoting Idaho’s most famous export… Whereas Kip’s relationship with LaFawnduh is a tribute to e-commerce and Idaho’s technology-driven industry…” Bradford concluded by declaring any members who vote “nay” to be “FREAKIN’ IDIOTS!” Resolution No. 29, paying tribute to Napoleon Dynamite, passed unanimously.

Something strange is going on here. In an age of instant cult “classics,” Napoleon Dynamite — a micro-budgeted, snail-paced flick about a high school loser, with no stars, no profanity or nudity and barely a whisper of a plot — stands alone. It was an unexpected hit when it was released last June, earning $45 million at the box office, and was an even bigger success on DVD. Now Napoleon has entered a bizarre third act where few films have gone, spawning festivals, lecture tours, audience-participation midnight screenings, a merchandising industry and a library of inescapable catchphrases, meaningless to all but the obsessed (“Tina, come get your ham!”). Odder still: Die-hard fans range from young girls to drunken frat boys to rock superstars. How did this quirkfest, produced by a group of Mormons make the leap to pop-culture phenomenon?

“I had no idea how big it was until a couple of weeks ago,” says Jared Hess, who wrote the film with his wife, Jerusha, while both were students at Brigham Young. “Then we walked into the mall, and every line in the film had its own T-shirt.” Hess was twenty-three when he cast his ex-roommate Jon Heder as Napoleon and shot his $200,000 opus, the misadventures of some Idaho misfits, the strangest of whom is the tater-obsessed title character (older brother Kip and only friend Pedro, who runs for high school office, aren’t far behind). Hess drew on his upbringing in rural Preston, Idaho, where his mom kept a llama and a local farm bred ligers — a cross between lions and tigers. Napoleon has a pet llama, Tina, and wistfully draws ligers (“It’s bred for its skills in magic,” he monotones).

After snagging a spot in last year’s Sundance Film Festival, “I was dry-heaving before the first screening, just a total nervous wreck,” Hess says. Fox Searchlight bought the film for $3 million. “Everybody thought we were crazy,” says Josh Deighton, Searchlight’s VP of production. “Three months later, the movie was still in theaters. I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is something special.'”

With the release of the DVD, things took a weird turn. Out just before Christmas, it sold 1.4 million copies the first day. Momentum began building. Soon it was a geek-chic riot of theme parties, impersonators, sold-out college lectures with the cast members and even Napoleon festivals featuring tetherball tournaments. “The kids in our neighborhood are all getting perms and wearing moon boots,” says Jerusha Hess. Napoleon also spawned a wave of merchandising “unheard of for a movie like this,” according to Jennifer Robinson, a Fox VP. The retail chain Hot Topic sells more than 200 Napoleon-related items, from My Lips Hurt Real Bad lip balm to Eye of the Liger panties. The bonanza continues this fall with Napoleon, Pedro and Kip action figures by McFarlane Toys.

Most unexpected of all, Napoleon has become an obsession for rock stars ranging from John Mayer to Dave Grohl. According to Garbage singer Shirley Manson, “To watch a movie dealing with someone who’s the antithesis of cool, it’s like forgiving ourselves our own nerdery.” Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe has seen the film “around thirty times,” and his wife, Donna D’Errico, calls Napoleon her secret boyfriend. “There’s a little bit of Napoleon in all of us,” says Sixx. “But if he thinks he’s gonna put a little bit of Napoleon into my wife, I’ll kick his ass.”

For Napoleon himself, the attention is overwhelming. In 2003, Heder was training to be an animator when he took the role for $1,000; today, he’s an unlikely sex symbol with four films on his plate. “I told myself, ‘If this movie takes off, for the rest of my life people will think of me as Napoleon,'” says Heder, 27. “Now that doesn’t seem too bad. “People develop a personal relationship with the film,” he says. “There’s a million people who think they’re the only ones who get it.” But not everyone has joined the cult. “Napoleon Dynamite blows ass,” says Abbie Davis, member of the “Napoleon Dynamite Is as Horrible as Genocide” online club. “It has no meaning. You get nothing from it.”

And that may be exactly the point. To devotees, the film’s accumulation of odd dialogue and meaningless detail seems funnier each time you see them. “Everybody wants to be in a club,” says Heder. “And with the lingo, the characters, the outfits, Napoleon‘s the ultimate club.”

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