Movie Reviews, Writing

The Art of the Story

Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, DreamWorks, Pixar, and at one time Disney. What do all of these things have in common? They all had highly successful, well-received films because they know how to tell a good story well.

Think about the types of films that they’ve all created. Many of them had fantastic special effects and featured cutting-edge technology. But that’s not why people love them. Audiences get caught up in the struggle of a little fish trying to find his son. They feel the heartache and frustration of a giant green ogre that’s trying to impress his in-laws. Audiences cried when Wilson the volleyball gets swept out to sea – granted a lot of that had to do with the acting, but there was a heartfelt story behind it. The audience becomes a part of the action that is going on up on the screen, because the directors can tell a story. And that is why people love the films.

I wonder if young filmmakers are truly grasping this concept.

Reason I ask is that last week I caught a free screening of Napoleon Dynamite from Fox Searchlight. It’s a quirky little story about a social outcast in high school. Created by a husband and wife team, Jared and Jerusha Hess, out of Bingham Young University, it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for a Dramatic Film at Sundance and won the Film Discovery Jury Award for Best Feature at the U.S. Comedy Festival. However, I don’t see what all the fuss is about over this movie. We love it because it’s different. It’s not the same vein of lackluster comedy that’s being spewed out of Hollywood. Yes it has some great funny bits. Yes the actor playing Napoleon, Jon Heder, does a good job at deadpan comedy. But it doesn’t all come together they way it could.

I hate to see what could be a great little movie turn into a flop. There were a number of times throughout the film that I wasn’t engaged in the story. That was mainly in the beginning, which droned on for what seemed like an hour, before we know what this story is about. Once you get to the story it is very sweet and funny. It reminded me to some extent of the Royal Tenenbaum ( especially the beginning titles) in that it’s a reflection back on a childhood that was awkward, a bit strange, and weird. But it seemed the Hesses were more concerned about getting all those funny skits that they thought up into the movie rather than telling the story.

There are lots of little skits/scenes that are precious. Yet, there seems to be a disconnect between them sometimes that resulted in a number of lulls in the movie. And there were scenes that we were laughing at not because it was funny but because it was awkwardly stupid. Luckily I had a great group of guys sitting next to me that that didn’t follow the convention of not talking during the movie. There were some times I was laughing because of this group of guys sitting next were making little comments and well, you can’t recreate that at every showing. Also, since it was a free screening there’s a bit of the “well it’s a free showing and since I didn’t pay for it I’m not as invested in it, demanding that it’s up to my standards of what funny is”.

If I were in charge, I would suggest going back and editing this movie. This is what I think would help make it even better:

Establish location in the beginning – We need to know that this is Idaho. I shouldn’t have to read a synopsis of the film to know where it takes place. It’s not clear in the beginning. To me it looks like the mountains in California. Reason that we need to know where we are is that we’re questioning what year this is. Is it the 80’s? If we think that then we’re nit-picking at what is wrong with the movie: Glamour Shots weren’t popular until the 90’s, the ring tones are too modern, and the Internet was still in it’s baby stages, no one used the word cyberspace, went in chat rooms or bought things online. Also the chicken farm and milk testing scenes then make sense. If we’re supposed to not know, well, it doesn’t work. Establishing that it’s Idaho explains everything, because Idaho is perceived by the general public as being completely backassward.

What is the Story? The central conflict? – We don’t know what to root for until we know that the kid’s interested in the girl and even then we lose that somewhere in the middle. We start getting concerned about the presidential race and the girl kinda takes a back seat. I would have liked to have seen just a bit more of her. If it’s not the girl, then I’ve left that theater not really knowing what this story is about.

What’s his Internal Conflict? – What is going on in this kid’s head? Yes we’ve all known this kid when we were in school and maybe we were him in some ways. Hell, we certainly laugh at times because some of us have done things that he’s doing – “My girlfriend is a model and can’t make it to the dance” However, there are times, mainly in the beginning, I was asking “is it that the actor can’t act, or is the character supposed to be this way.” I know that in some ways we’re not supposed to understand this kid, but we should know what’s motivating him? Could be solved with speeding up the pacing or adding voiceover if you must.

Speed up the Pacing – The beginning needs to be cut down. Although there are a number of very funny and cute scenes in there, the story doesn’t really seems to start until we’re concerned about the boys getting dates for the dance. You could take some of those funny little scenes and move them elsewhere in the movie. Loved having the 80s music at the dance, but for the length of the movie cut the dance scene is just a tad. Also, I left the movie not really remembering what happened in the beginning.

Cow Shooting Scene – Loved it. This is one of those great little random scenes in the beginning that could be moved elsewhere in the film. Juxtapose it with the milk tasting scene later on in the film. However you can see fishing line attached to the rifle. Breaks the suspension of disbelief.

Too many characters – There’s a bit of a theme in my comments that I can’t remember characters. Shows that perhaps there are too many, audience attention is divided. Could have combined some.

Summer – Played by Hillary Duff’s sister, Hailey, we need to hate her more. Just because she’s the popular girl is not enough of a reason to hate her. I would have had her be the one that is made to go to the dance with Napoleon. Combining characters many times can fix a story.

Summer’s boyfriend – We should see more of him. I would have combined this character with all the other school bullies. It makes us hate him and hate Summer even more because she’s dating him.

Rex the karate guy – By the time Napoleon’s Uncle Rico was in Rex’s girlfriends house towards the end of the movie, I had forgotten about Rex and that she was Rex’s girlfriend. She looked familiar, but I couldn’t remember how she was connected to other people in the movie. Probably if you speed up the pacing then it isn’t an issue. Definitely keep it in. We want to see Rico get beat up.

Uncle Rico – We hate this guy. I don’t feel sorry for him. He’s a bastard of an uncle to Napoleon. So why have him find his soul mate at the end.? Who cares! He deserves to be alone for being such a jerk to Napoleon and screwing up his love life. And who is that woman that pulls up on her bike? She’s in the middle of nowhere and there’s a loner-guy living in his van, throwing footballs at a camera? No normal, nice looking woman would go anywhere near him.

Pedro – The Napoleon/Pedro friendship was true to life. When thrown into an awkward situation (being in high school and an outcast) with someone else, you usually become friends with that person out of convenience, and it was what you’d expect a typical teenage boys’ friendship would be.

Pedro’s relatives – loved these guys in the car. I would have liked to have seen more instances of their “protection services”. They’re thrown in there at one point and then forgotten about until the family picnic where we see them in the background.

Ending – Napoleon’s dance skit on stage – we loved it, felt embarrassed for him, rooted for him, were amazed that he could dance that way, and proud that he got them all on their feet (with help from the girl he likes). The last scene is perfect the way it is, and it’s probably due to the Mormon influence here. Do not change it. Do not have Napoleon and the girl kiss. (I can’t remember her name, which says to me she’s not in it enough). I could see MTV(the producers) wanting to change it.

Music – There needs to be more mood/background music. There’s so much feeling that music can add to a film. I liked the instrumental soundtrack and would have liked to have heard it fill in some of the slower scenes . Might have helped me connect to the film more.

Tina – Did he still feed the llama throughout this time period? We don’t see that he still has to take care of her. Somewhere in the back of my head I’m thinking, “Did he starve the llama?”

I can see this film becoming a cult favorite mainly because it’s a stupid story told in a quirky way. But imagine what the Hesses could have accomplished if they just stayed true to the story

2 thoughts on “The Art of the Story”

  1. Your old comments on nepoleon dynamite are hilarious.
    If they wanted to make a hollywood comedy they would have followed your notes exactly…mood music?…fucking hilarious, you clearly miss the point. henry

  2. Actually – the version we saw was prior to wide release. I saw a portion of the movie after seeing this preview and the scene was fairly different from what we saw that day. SO it leads me to believe that they were testing things with the movie.

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