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?
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.
“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.”