A Rejection of Morality: Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

Napoleon Dynamite perfectly captures the intricacies of rural America. Homes
feel cluttered with receipts and batteries, with crumbs and eraser shavings. Corny 80s music plays at every venue. Every interior wall evokes a sense of tastelessness, painted beige or white or some sickening version of an equally terrible color. Every piece of food looks mildly off-putting. A sweaty Idaho sun constantly beats down on the film’s miserable, often delusional characters. The world of Napoleon Dynamite feels worn and used, covered by a thin facade of glitter, wallpaper, and cheese.

Enter Napoleon Dynamite, the protagonist of Napoleon Dynamite. Napoleon makes his way through high school doing what he wants. He draws Tolkien-esque fantasy portraits of questionable quality in plain view. He enacts strangely erotic sign language musical performances with the high school’s Happy Hands Club. These actions indicate that Napoleon does not care about how the world views him. But as the film progresses, the audience learns that Napoleon cares deeply about his own image. The audience comes to realize that Napoleon is completely delusional, that he’s convinced his bizarre and lackluster hobbies do indeed impress others.

In addition to his hobbies, Napoleon spends time behaving like a terrible human being. Napoleon talks to others with either malice, or with back-handed compliments that reflect the twisted workings of his own mind. When talking about himself, Napoleon almost always lies, even to the few friends he does have. Bullies target Napoleon, often violently, but Napoleon exacts the same physical treatment on his older brother Kip.

Napoleon has almost no redeeming qualities, and yet, by the end, the whole audience cheers for him. Those watching desperately want Napoleon, the new transfer Pedro, and Deb to win the student presidency. The trio wants the presidency for purely selfish reasons, with no plans to improve the school or social climate afterwards. Pedro makes a shamelessly hollow promise to the class at the end of his speech, telling them “vote for me, and all of your wildest dreams will come true.” Though Pedro and Deb have many admirable qualities, and the group’s opposition has some deplorable tendencies, the audience ultimately roots for Napoleon, an abhorrent human being.

Napoleon Dynamite argues that the abstract dichotomy of good and evil is only incidental to the social conflicts of teenagers. Napoleon Dynamite presents a world of sides, not a world of rights and wrongs. The film’s over the top characters have hyper realistic motivations and aspirations, but rarely any comprehension of the greater good. On a more technical level, Napoleon Dynamite serves as a rejection of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.

Topic Sentence 1: Napoleon offers support to other victims of violence in the film, but only does so to further his own political aspirations.

Topic Sentence 2: Napoleon’s epic dance routine feels climactic as an impressive feat from the underdog, not as a moment of righteousness.

Topic Sentence 3: Though Pedro struggles against both implicit and explicit instances of racism, the film never makes an attempt to incorporate Pedro’s mistreatment into his motivations for becoming class president.

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