clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Bugs Bunny stands next to Napoleon as they look at a strategy map featuring various model soldiers and cannons in the 1956 short “Napoleon Bunny-Part” Image: Warner Bros.

Filed under:

An extremely serious roundup of the best Napoleons

Ridley Scott or Bugs Bunny? Seems like an easy choice

Ridley Scott’s $200 million historical epic Napoleon is the stuff prestige-movie dreams are made of. Spanning 32 years in the French emperor’s life, the 158-minute film blitzes through multiple massive, expensively staged battles, all in order to consider how Napoleon’s marital struggles with his wife Josephine may have shaped French history. But does all this pricey prestige drama live up to the other great Napoleons of media? The Polygon staff takes this kind of question very seriously, so we sat down to consider which media Napoleons matter most.

Napoleon from Aristocats

Napoleon the bloodhound, wearing a bowler hat and riding in a motorcycle sidecar, rears back with his mouth open, ready to take a huge bite out of the butt of Edgar the butler, who’s piloting the sidecar in the Disney animated movie The Aristocats Image: Walt Disney Animation Studios/Disney Plus

The tire-biting, vehicle-chasing bloodhound Napoleon in Disney’s 1970 animated movie The Aristocats is perhaps a little more Southern-coded and a little more focused on ass-biting than most historical depictions of the French emperor. But he does look dapper in a bowler hat, and his defense of his leadership skills and status — or at least, the degree to which he outranks his basset hound companion in arms, Lafayette — does have some resonance with the historical figure. This Napoleon wouldn’t hesitate to launch into an ill-advised Russian winter campaign, if the Russians showed up in cars he could chase. —Tasha Robinson

Napoleon in Civilization V

Civilization V’s Napoleon is a smarmy little guy, and I have a love-hate relationship with him for it. He introduces himself by saying “Welcome. I’m Napoleon, of France, the smartest military man in world history.” He generally has an air of disdain for you and anyone who is not him. This makes me hate him, but also love him: Consistency is important.

Gameplay-wise, Civ V’s Napoleon is appropriately bold. He’s frequently trying to expand his empire, and you better hope you’re not in his way, as he’s one of the most likely leaders to declare war. Ultimately, though, Napoleon most often goes for a cultural victory. Despite his military background, that does feel most fitting for France’s whole deal. He got replaced for Civ VI by Catherine de Medici and Eleanor of Aquitaine. I both miss you and don’t, Napoleon. —Pete Volk

Napoleon in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Napoleon (Terry Camilleri) in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, wearing the classic tricorn hat, medals, and epaulettes, and enjoying a water-park adventure with ice cream smeared on his lips Image: Orion Pictures

Bill & Ted’s Napoleon is a very silly man. The Wyld Stallyns (Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter) run into him while he’s getting ready to go to battle, but life had different plans. Abandoned at a bowling alley, Napoleon finds a water park, fittingly called “Waterloo,” and has the absolute time of his life, making friends, enemies, and a new waterslide-centric war strategy. I hope Ridley Scott’s Napoleon respects this chapter of his life. —PV

Napoleon in Time Bandits

“You know, I come to conquer Italy… because I thought they were all small, you know? I heard they was really tiny guys.”

Future Bilbo Baggins Ian Holm is having the absolute time of his life as another great short king in Time Bandits. This Napoleon is very concerned with his height, the height of other significant historical figures, and the height of his generals, and is delighted to meet the even shorter Time Bandits, after his violent puppet show meets a bloody end. Fun fact: This is one of three times Holm played Napoleon, after the TV show Napoleon and Love and before the 2001 movie The Emperor’s New Clothes. —PV

Napoleon Dynamite

Jon Heder as Napoleon Dynamite, a gawky teenager with curly blonde hair and glasses, wearing a brown suit and sitting on a gold velvet couch Image: Fox Searchlight/Everett Collection

The awkward hero of Napoleon Dynamite may seem to have been ironically named. His very lack of ambition is what defines him from the cast of weirdos around him. Uncle Rico has his get-rich-quick scheme, Kip has his long-distance girlfriend to impress, Deb is determined to save for college, and Pedro — Pedro wants to be class president! Would Napoleon Bonaparte settle to be campaign manager for another candidate? Impossible.

But could the historical Napoleon win his friend’s election with an improvised dance in front of his entire student body? It’s pretty safe to say no, also impossible. Napoleon D. has it where it counts. —Susana Polo

Napoleon in The Count of Monte Cristo the book

On the one hand, Napoleon does not appear in The Count of Monte Cristo, the greatest adventure novel ever written.

On the other, the entire plot of the book is inextricably tangled with his personal fortunes. After all, the entire Thing of the story kicks off when the story’s villainous betrayers team up to frame our pulp hero/career avenger Edmond Dantès as a Bonapartist. It just so happens that they hatch their plan on the very eve of the General’s failed and final attempt to retake France, and being labeled a Bonaparist suddenly becomes several times more serious than it was the day before.

The political and interpersonal complications of supporting Napoleon, opposing Napoleon, or being accused of either of those, never truly recede from the novel. It’s the cause of murders, abandonments, estrangements, and terrible family secret that, when revealed, wrecks engagements and otherwise cause all sorts of delicious drama. Napoleon doesn’t appear in The Count of Monte Cristo, but he’s the foundation its entire manic plot rests upon, and for this he must be recognized. —SP

Napoleon in the Temeraire books

Napoleon does, however, appear multiple times in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels, a nine-book series about dragons in the Napoleonic wars. Initially just an offscreen bugaboo — a military tactician par excellence whose innovative dragon tactics have the whole world talking — Napoleon eventually emerges as a charismatic, voluble, honorable, and endlessly charming onscreen character, one as capable of dominating a ball or a dinner party just as easily as a battlefield.

In Novik’s portrayal, it’s much clearer than in Ridley Scott’s version why Napoleon’s soldiers and countrymen would speak of him with such awe, and why his battlefield enemies would grudgingly respect him while also dreading his newest tactical leaps of genius. Also, Josephine barely rates a mention, except when it’s revealed that Napoleon is on the marriage market again. —TR

Empoleon the Pokémon

Empoleon, as seen in Pokemon Arceus Image: Game Freak/Nintendo

The cute penguin Pokémon Piplup, first introduced in Pokémon: Diamond and Pearl, evolves into this clear homage to the French ruler. At 5’7”, Empoleon is taller than the real-life Napoleon. (Due to variations in French and English measurements, the man Napoleon could be anywhere from 5’2” to 5’6”.) I wonder how the historical figure would feel about this Water/Steel type being taller than him. Empoleon, much like Napoleon, is pretty prideful, but Empoleon is more restrained and won’t start unnecessary fights, like conquering the Iberian peninsula. So the Paldea region is safe from Empoleon’s conquests! — Petrana Radulovic

Napoleon the pig in Animal Farm

Gonna level — I read this book once in high school for English class and then never again. But the pig was supposed to be Stalin. I just think the entire allegory of Animal Farm is really funny, even though that clearly isn’t the intention. Like, pigs are bacon. I could turn Pig Stalin into a mean carbonara. —PR

Napoleon in “Napoleon Bunny-Part”

Napoleon in the Looney Tunes short “Napoleon Bunny-Part” — a short, Elmer Fudd-like figure in a traditional Napoleon costume with the back half missing, his polka-dot underwear peeking out, and the back of his head shaved after a close encounter with a guillotine — faces a frowning mental hospital orderly in white high-collared scrubs Image: Warner Bros.

On the one hand, the Napoleon Bonaparte of Friz Freleng’s Bugs Bunny short “Napoleon Bunny-Part” is a tactical, fearless commander who sends troops to capture the errant rabbit disrupting his planning session, then leaps into the fray himself. On the other hand, he is eventually defeated by that rabbit, who tricks him into stepping into a guillotine at just the right time to have the back side of his clothing neatly sliced away by the falling blade.

On the other other hand, the rabbit is Bugs Bunny, the nigh-undefeated trickster spirit. Even an Emperor is a mortal man, and Bugs holds power over the very laws of physics within his domain of animated shorts. So perhaps Napoleon’s reputation can survive this defeat.

On the other other other hand, this supposed emperor is capable of being defeated by a couple of random orderlies who believe he’s one of many mentally ill people who believe they’re Napoleon. By the end of the short, he’s unceremoniously packed off to a suggested institution. But is he truly delusional? Or is this all part of Bugs Bunny’s indefatigable, undefinable, ineffable power over reality? “Napoleon Bunny-Part” raises a lot of metaphysical questions we mere mortals are unprepared to answer. —SP

Napoleon in tabletop wargaming

There would be no tabletop wargaming without the book Little Wars, a set of rules for properly playing with toy soldiers, written by none other than H. G. Wells (The War of the Worlds) and first published in 1913. In it, Wells conceived a system whereby two players and a judge could adjudicate battles between Napoleon Bonaparte and… well, the rest of Europe, basically. As a result, fancy-ass studies all over the world have been converted into storehouses for little tin men on horseback.

Fast-forward to today, and those fancy-ass studies are now hobby spaces where folks toil away on plastic and resin miniatures in the hopes of finding a game at the local shop. But modern games from the likes of Games Workshop and Mantic rarely have the same kind of historical pomp and circumstance as the OG infantry and dashing cavalry officers that Wells played with. Sure, you can probably find a nearby game of Command & Colors: Napoleonics from GMT or Black Powder from Warlord Games if you look hard enough. But, for my money, I’d much rather mess around with Turnip28.

Turnip28 is a fairly simple ruleset for small units of soldiers, but it’s the soldiers that are the most fun part of this setting. Developed by British artist Max Fitzgerald, it’s described as a post-apocalyptic, vaguely-European world utterly obsessed with root vegetables. It’s a game about turnips, and that’s meaningless nonsense, I know. But it’s a conceit that helps focus the mind. How might I best explicate the inner dialogue of the common horseradish by slapping together the random bits of miniatures that I’m not otherwise using? It’s a game that’s just as much fun to prepare for as it is to play, and the source of some of the most dramatic and inspiring miniature art that I’ve seen all year. —Charlie Hall

Napoleon from Assassin’s Creed Unity

How do you think Napoleon Bonaparte — sworn eternal enemy of the Kingdom of Britain — would feel about modern-day interpretations saddling him with a British accent? That’s exactly what happened in Assassin’s Creed Unity, Ubisoft’s 2014 entry in its series of murder-y historical tourism sims. Playing in Paris at the turn of the 19th century, you periodically team up with Napoleon to aid with revolutionary stuff, and also track down ancient relics from a lost civilization. (It’s complicated.)

Most historical figures in Assassin’s Creed games are little more than extended Leo DiCaprio pointing memes — famous names and faces conveniently molded to whatever character trope the plot demands for the moment. But Napoleon’s turn in Unity is deep and well-researched, even going so far as to delve into his complicated romantic life. Overall, it’s a rich portrayal of a prominent historical figure. If you can ignore the accent. —Ari Notis

Napoleon the pastry

Napoleon cake from Amigo’s restaurant in Happy Valley, a multi-layered flaky cake with interleaved frosting, a strawberry and blueberries on top, and candy flowers drawn on the plate Photo: Jonathan Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

One of the most difficult pastries for a chef to master, thanks to its delicate layering, the napoleon, aka “mille-feuille,” or “thousand leaves,” was named for its many layers — exactly the kind of complexity one might want in a prominent leader, but a lot sweeter than the traditional views of Napoleon. The ranking on this particular napoleon depends entirely on whether you’re eating it (high marks!) or making it. (High difficulty and particularly time-consuming!) —TR

Gaming

Pokémon Presents coming next week for Pokémon Day

Pokémon

Where to watch the entire Pokémon anime

Culture

Twitch Plays Pokémon goes back to the beginning for 10th anniversary

View all stories in Pokémon