It’s been seven years since “Napoleon Dynamite” became an unlikely indie film darling, and unless you’ve been watching the DVD with regularity in that intervening span, Fox’s new animated version — which reunites most of the cast, albeit as mere voices — might cause some initial disorientation. The series that emerges, though, seems less a continuation than pieced together from other Fox entries, wedding “King of the Hill’s” small-town eccentricity and laconic characters with Seth MacFarlane’s silliness. The mixture isn’t dynamite but does have moments of quirky charm, and at least marks a step up in class from “Allen Gregory.”
Of course, the movie allowed Napoleon (Jon Heder), the odd outsider, to work toward a particular goal: trying to get his barely-verbal classmate Pedro (Efren Ramirez) elected student-body president. Not only did the material catch on, but it launched a thousand tie-ins and “Vote for Pedro” T-shirts.
Here, Napoleon is only partially preoccupied dealing with the daily indignities of high school, while veering into absurdly over-the-top adventures. That probably reflects the joining of the movie’s creative team, Jared and Jerusha Hess, with “The Simpsons” alum Mike Scully — opening the door to a kind of exaggerated storytelling that’s presumably necessary if the show’s going to agelessly spend the next several years in high school.
Napoleon still lives in Idaho with his irascible granny (Sandy Martin) and strange brother Kip (Aaron Ruell). Yet the two previewed episodes take them well beyond the movie to bits involving cage fighting and a computer that matches up students romantically, yielding unforeseen consequences.
To say the show represents an improvement over “Allen Gregory” (another school-set show about a quirky outsider, in a “What’s in the water this year at Fox?” parallel) is not much of an endorsement, but there is something amusing about Heder’s monotonic voice and Napoleon’s utter lack of self-awareness, along with fast-paced gags like a miniature golf course where hitting the ball into Hitler’s mouth wins a free round.
Frankly, “Napoleon Dynamite” is remembered fondly in part because there wasn’t some half-assed sequel, and a series — even an animated one — risks stretching a relatively flimsy if pleasant construct past its breaking point.
Whatever help name recognition provides in terms of sampling, the series will pretty quickly have to sink or swim on its own. As for whether enough viewers will vote for “Napoleon,” the margin in that election is more likely to be a squeaker than a landslide.