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Napoleon Dynamite: Like The Best Special Edition Ever!

At first glance, one must presume that we're supposed to laugh at Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), and certainly not with him. A marvelous condensation of every nerd, geek, and outcast in high schools across America, Napoleon's cursed with a lanky body, an untamed white-boy 'fro, heavy glasses, drooping eyelids, and a serious case of mouth-breathing. And he's not one of the smart geeks either — the sort who get shoved into lockers by jocks but will someday hold three million shares of restricted stock options in a booming biotech firm. Not our Mr. Dynamite. He doesn't even write bad poetry, but instead fills his notebooks with (overly shaded) drawings, usually of animals, and sometimes of rare zoological hybrids (his favorite being a "liger"). He's a bit scared of girls, and all he wants is for everyone to get off his case. But it's not so easy. After his thrill-seeking grandmother (Sandy Martin) is injured turfing an ATV on some local sand dunes, Napoleon's annoying Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) moves in to watch after the teenager and his 32-year-old brother Kip (Aaron Ruell). Meanwhile, back at high school, Napoleon develops a slight crush on amateur photographer Deb (Tina Majorino), and not long after he meets new kid Pedro (Efren Ramirez), he finds himself determined to help the Hispanic newcomer win the upcoming election for class president.

Laughing at Napoleon Dynamite (2004) is easy enough, although some folks are bound to feel a pang of guilt doing so. Directed by Jared Hess (who co-wrote the script with his wife Jerusha), the low-budget enterprise is brought to life thanks to a series of detailed, nail-on-the-head performances by his gifted cast, who infuse their broad caricatures with enough reality to make them instantly recognizable. Veteran Jon Gries captures the fortysomething single man longing for the glory of his youth, blending assertiveness and smarm while selling plastic dishware sets to the locals of Preston, Idaho. As Kip, Aaron Ruell is an arrested 32-year-old who can't live on his own, spends much of his day in Internet chat-rooms, and hopes to overcome his slight physique by training to become an ultimate fighter. Tina Majorino's Deb, with her ponytail always pulled to one side or straight up off her head, is the smart, shy girl in school who seems to live in her own sea of pastels and primary colors. And as Napoleon, John Heder is a revelation — his brilliant interpretation of stilted youth is hard not to mimic on the spot, and it's funniest when he's completely infuriated by all of the idiots around him (has the word "fine!" huffed in sarcasm ever sounded better?) If you don't see a part of yourself somewhere — and you probably will — you'll at least glimpse high school as it really was over the past few decades. What makes Hess's comedy that much more appealing is the way Napoleon, Kip, and Deb adopt the methods and manners of grade-school children, particularly in their own inflated sense of self and the little personal dramas they endure on an hourly basis. Perhaps it's meant to be a comment on how recent generations of American youth overly cling to childhood. Or perhaps it's just supposed to be funny. In either case, by the time the film ends and Napoleon shows off his skills, we're finally laughing with him, not at him.

*          *          *

Fox's second DVD release of Napoleon Dynamite arrives in a two-disc special edition — or actually, "Like The Best Special Edition Ever!" The feature film returns with the same good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, while also getting an encore is the chatty, laid back commentary with director Jared Hess, star Jon Heder, and producer Jeremy Coon. New to Disc One is a second commentary featuring co-stars Aaron Ruell, Jon Gries, Efren Ramierez, and Tina Majorino. The packed Disc Two includes "On Location with Napoleon Dynamite," a low-key collection of B-roll footage and cast comments (notably, Napoleon's dance scene is the one element of the film that director Jared Hess would not allow to be videotaped). Also on hand is "World Premiere: Jared Hess" with footage from the 2004 Sundance Film Festival (42 min.) as well as 11 extended, alternate, and outtakes scenes (with optional commentary a "play all" option). "Casting Napoleon Dynamite" features an interview with casting director Jory Weitz (13 min.) and three audition tapes (5 min.). The pre-Dynamite 2002 short "Peluca" includes optional commentary (8 min.). And the "Napoleon Sightings" section contains "Clips from TRL" (5 min.), "Tankman Begins" (6 min.), "Opening of SNL with John Heder" (4 min.), "2004 Teen Choice Awards: Napoleon Dynamite and Nicole Richie Play Tetherball" (1 min.), "2005 Teen Choice Awards: Hissy Fit Award" (1 min.), "Spelling Bee" (1 min.), and three Utah State Fair TV spots, which are, quite seriously, the best commercials for a state fair ever. The extensive features are rounded off with a stills gallery, 13 MTV on-air promos (with "play all"), and a behind-the-scenes look at "The Wedding of the Century," which appears after the credits of the feature title (3 min.). Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
—JJB



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