Sunday Night with 'Napoleon Dynamite': A Cult Series Turns Toony

Quite a few cartoon characters have made the leap from the animated world to the real one (Scooby Doo, the Smurfs and the Chipmunks for starters) – but how many have gone the other way?

Professor Koontz (guest voice Jemaine Clement) uses a Scantron machine to pair students romantically. Napoleon Dynamite ™ and © 2011 TCFFC. All rights reserved. All images © 2011 Fox Broadcasting.

Quite a few cartoon characters have made the leap from the animated world to the real one (Scooby Doo, the Smurfs and the Chipmunks for starters) – but how many have gone the other way?

A cartoon series based on the original Ghostbusters movie enjoyed a five year run in the late 1980s following the success of the original film, but that was a syndicated afternoon kids’ show. By comparison, the animated version of Napoleon Dynamite is appearing in a more toney venue: Fox’s Sunday night animation block, where it’s currently in the midst of a six-episode trial run.

As deadpan-wacky as it was, the 2004 comedy basically kept both feet in the real world, following uber-nerd Napoleon and his small circle of friends and family in the little town of Preston Idaho. The cartoon Napoleon however is taking a few more liberties with reality…

“Two and half years ago I was having lunch with Jared Hess,” explains Simpsons veteran Mike Scully, who’s overseeing the animated series. According to Scully, Hess – the original film’s co-writer and director – wanted to do a series tracing the continuing adventures of the film’s characters – “but not a sequel. Jared thought it would be hard to create a follow-up to the film, that people would get weary of the characters.

Pedro saves the life of his dream-girl.

“The idea was to expand their world, and Jared thought animation would be a fun way to do that. Our plan was to transfer the characters and the premise from the film – and then forget about the film.”

Hess did more, a lot more than sign off on the concept and hand the project over to Scully and company. “He was extremely hands-on,” Scully recalls. “Jared and his wife (Jerusha Hess, who co-scripted the original film) were very involved – they really wanted to make the series work.”

In its cartoon incarnation, Napoleon Dynamite meshes perfectly with its Sunday night neighbors the Simpsons, the Griffins and the Smiths. In place of the film’s tongue-in-cheek naturalism, Dynamite episodes are built around surreal premises: in one episode Napoleon faces off against brother Kip in the Thundercone, a Fight Club-style combat arena hidden inside a barn silo; in a later episode Napoleon finds himself working on a liger farm, where he discovers the not-so-imaginary animal he’s fascinated by are less than awesome in real life.

“There’s nothing more disappointing than watching an animated show that could’ve just as easily been done as live-action” according to Scully, who says he’s been pitched numerous ideas for animated series based on live-action movies. “Sometimes that happens on The Simpsons. When it does we go back and insert some physical comedy – I want to defy gravity at least twice a week.”

Scully’s been part of the creative team that’s been dreaming up the escapades of Springfield’s favorite family since the mid-90’s; at various times he’s been credited as its producer, supervising producer, executive producer, co-executive producer and consulting producer. “I’m still there, after almost 19 years. I’ve left a couple of times, briefly, to work on shows that were quickly cancelled, but they always seem to welcome me back afterwards.” Scully may be a bit too modest about his non-Simpsons credits, which include a season as co-exec producer on Everybody Loves Raymond. At the moment Scully says he usually spends one day a week on The Simpsons, while working on Napoleon as well as the live-action Parks and Recreation.

Kip performs for a captivated audience.

The entire cast of the live-action Napoleon Dynamite film has returned to voice their animated incarnations. “That was part of my first discussion with Jared,” says Scully. “If we couldn’t get everybody there was no reason to do the series.”

Voicing cartoon characters – even characters they had already portrayed in live action – was a new challenge for the cast. “It’s a whole different type of acting. You don’t use your body, you have to convey a lot with your voice. Matt Groening taught me you have to talk 10% faster in animation.

“The actors picked it up very quickly – by the third episode they were in the groove.” As in most animated series, the performers were recorded individually on a catch as catch can basis. “We’d sometimes record several people the same day, depending on their schedule.”

Scully says Hess himself is capable of voicing his creations. “He’s got the whole world in his head – he can act as them. When we’re in the writers’ room Jared will pitch a joke, or he’ll say a line someone else came up with in the character’s voice to see if it works.

Napoleon tries to join a local underground fight club.

“It was a huge help for us. We all kind of had our own version of their voices in our heads – it helped a lot when Jared did them.”

Scully’s quite pleased with the lineup of guest voices in the show’s initial run: people like SNL’s Amy Poehler, Jemaine Clement (The Flight of the Conchords), Jennifer Coolidge and Sam Rockwell.

The film’s characters all sported very unique appearances, making it easy to create their large-headed cartoon likenesses. “The design process went through a lot of hands,” says Claudia Katz of First Draft Studios, production home to the series. “It was a collaborative effort, but it started with Ted Sterns and Peter Avanzino [the show’s supervising director] honed it from there. Sometimes you go through rounds and rounds of designs before you get it right, but this time it happened relatively quickly.

“You look at them and they kind of make you smile. There’s a charm to them that’s really great. There’s a lot of heart in the show, and it comes through visually.”

The simple style and character design is a bit reminiscent of Mike Judge’s creations, but Scully says the real goal was to “replicate and exaggerate” the movie’s characters. Even so, Scully admits that in profile the open-mouthed Napoleon does resemble – to a slight degree – Judge’s Butt-head.

Napoleon and Kip battle each other for the love of Misty.

According to Scully, the animated Napoleon Dynamite “is a work in progress. We’re trying to find out what works and what doesn’t. Our real challenge though is we’re on and off the Fox schedule because of football and awards shows. I hope people stick with it and watch all six episodes. The network ordered seven additional scripts that we’re writing right now. If we’re picked up for a second season then we’ll put them into production. The network is waiting until the show falls into a pattern; they want to see what the ratings numbers will be before they decide on a renewal.

Scully promises the series will contain plenty of nods to the movie: “Napoleon will recreate his (end of the movie) dance – but to different results. We’ll see Pedro at work as class president; on the wall behind him there’s a picture of him with Napoleon, who’s wearing that “Vote for Pedro” t shirt. Even so, the show stands on its own; you can dive in even if you haven’t already seen the movie.”

Unlike the rest of Fox’s other push-the-envelope Sunday night cartoon shows, Scully says “I want Napoleon Dynamite to be hip, cool, funny – and family friendly. When I watched film I didn’t realize it was rated PG, not even PG-13.

“I got an Email from a friend who watched our show with his kids; he said it was great to watch something without his finger on the pause button.”

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Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. He has written about animation, sci-fi and fantasy entertainment for the New York Daily News, Newsday and the New York Press. Joe has scripted the Nick Jr. series Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! and taught Mass Communications at New York's St. John's University. He is currently hosting “Interview with an Animator” [animator.interviews.com], a series of audience-attended conversations with noted figures in the animation community at a variety of New York City venues, including the Paley Center for the Media, The Society of Illustrators and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. Joe can be reached via joe@joestrike.com.

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