[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois | Director: Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois | Aired: 06/21/2002]
“No one gets left behind.”
There’s a hard, cynical edge separating 21st-century animated films from their 20th-century counterparts. This can be largely attributed to DreamWorks, which Shrek-tacularly reinvented the fairy tale genre around the turn of the century, leading to an endless parade of animated films that consist of wise-guy animals voiced by second-rate standup comics who spend a lot of time sniffing their own butts. (The animals, not the comics.)
Speaking as one sole critic (who, for his part, detests the majority of DreamWorks’ animated offerings) against a multimillion-dollar genre, I’m not entirely sure where the comedy line blurs between creative inventiveness and outright stupidity, but too many animated films produced in that so-called revolutionary period between 2000 and 2005 didn’t even bother approaching it. It’s times like this that we turn toward Disney Animation for comfort food. Yet even Disney hit something of a slump during those years, in a post-Renaissance era that featured more muddling than magic. (This is of course excluding its subsidiary, Pixar, which hit a creative peak during this stretch.) Six features were produced during the time, and while not all of them qualify as “bad”, only one of them holds claim to the modern-day classic label. And, not all too coincidentally, it’s that one film we’ll be looking at today.
Lilo & Stitch is often referred to as the one shining example of Disney purity in an otherwise unspectacular era. (For clarity, it was released between Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet, two gung-ho, old-fashioned adventure films that featured exciting visuals but cluttered stories and characterizations.) This label, while true, only tells part of the story. The rest of it only comes when you realize just how crucial the timing of its release actually was.
If you’re at least the right age, you likely remember the teasers for the film: Classic scenes from Renaissance-era films like Aladdin and The Lion King are abruptly cut short by the arrival of a furry blue creature with an unintelligible voice. These promos took some heat from Disney purists for the way they reportedly “blasphemised” the widely beloved older films. Leaving first impressions aside, the promos and their ensuing controversy are agent to one point: Lilo & Stitch was being marketed as Disney’s own anti-fairy tale.
The cynical, DreamWorks-patented brand may not seem to hold water when it comes to the most well-regarded Disney film of the Aughts, but then you need to look beneath the cute “girl and her alien dog” framework. Lilo and Stitch. Stitch and Lilo. Has there ever been any Disney film centering on not one, but two characters who are so naturally unlikable? She’s a naïve little girl who can’t make friends and at the slightest provocation, may leap on a fellow schoolmate and start punching her in the face. He’s a violent, unstable lab experiment who exists to destroy, has no real social skills, and picks his nose with his tongue. Is this the dynamic duo we’re meant to root for?
The answer is most assuredly “yes”, but it takes a bit of time to realize why. Or more than a bit, actually – both of the film’s protagonists get lengthy introductions independent from each other in extended teasers that show us just how different – and yet eerily similar – the unstable blue creature and the friendless Hawaiian girl are.
The first ten minutes of the film get things off to an unusual and unassuring start, with scenes that could be mistaken for leftover footage from Titan AE. Although we are led to believe that Stitch (initially referred to as the nominally generic “Experiment 626”) is a “monstrosity”, the film immediately calls this labeling into question by surrounding him with numerous alien characters of all shapes, sizes, and colors. While we get the feeling that Stitch is not quite as reasonably developed as the creatures around him (see: tongue as nose-picker), the abundance of creepy alien forms – many wielding powerful laser guns – in the opening scenes subtly mutes any thoughts we may have that Stitch is a horrific Godzilla unleashed on a quaint, unsuspecting populace. In fact, he seems more along the lines of an overexcited, mischievous pet. (Coincidence? Of course not.)
Lilo’s introduction is less auspicious, a fact attributed to the fact that her life doesn’t routinely involve space blasters and rocket ships. Still, our first impression of her is certainly unusual – she feeds peanut butter sandwiches to a fish because he “controls the weather”, resorts to physical violence at a single insult, and locks her sister out of their house while she lies around listening to Elvis. Even by most kid-friendly protagonist standards, there appears to be very little to like about Lilo.
But once Nani enters the picture, we immediately understand who Lilo is. She’s not particularly a troublesome kid, or an eccentric kid – she’s just a plain, basic kid. She does dumb things, and she throws a few tantrums, but what six-year-old wouldn’t? Her relationship with Nani brings out that honest aspect of her character. Anyone with a younger sibling (myself included) can likely relate to the successive emotional scenes early in the film, where Lilo and Nani get into a fight, make up, and then almost immediately start fighting again. The emotional sparks between the two are unpredictable, but are grounded with very real, very honest tenets: Nani may seem like the good, upstanding, parental sister, but she can be overbearing and careless in her attempts to keep things together. The two siblings comprise a broken family, and it will take a newcomer to stitch things together. (See what the filmmakers did there?)
Lilo is a simple kid, and it’s that very fact that makes her a complicated character. One thing we do get wind of quickly, though, is her penchant for nonhuman friends. She stages weekly meetings with Pudge the Fish, and owns a self-made doll she calls “Scrump”. (One of the film’s quietest humanizing beats comes early on, when Lilo, having been abandoned by her classmates for the perceived ugliness of Scrump, throws the doll on the ground in disgust and walks off, only to return moments later and affectionately embrace it.) So it’s no surprise that she so easily takes to the idea of owning a dog, and even less of a surprise that she chooses the weirdest dog in the kennel.
Lilo is actually easy to warm to under the circumstances, but it takes time for Stitch to catch our hearts. Although his early outer-space shenanigans are fitfully amusing, he displays a cruel streak by coaxing Lilo into adopting him. Although Lilo shows genuine affection for him from the start, Stitch only needs to stick around her to shield himself from his alien pursuers. But just when we start to hate Stitch for his cruel manipulation of a little girl, the film begins to develop things from his end as well.
Both our two titular characters have a sense of naiveté regarding the world they inhabit – she sees things from a child’s perspective, he sees them from an outsider’s. The two have more in common than we may initially expect, and as the film begins plowing them some common ground, we begin to see their relationship deepen.
“Why Elvis?” many viewers ask. The King of Rock certainly an odd choice, even for a movie riddled with strange decisions. But like so much else, it works because the tone of Elvis’ music (not to mention his image) meshes perfectly with the tone of the film – at times, Elvis could be goofy and bizarre; at others, he was heartfelt and endearing. His wardrobe and style have been parodied so much in the last few decades that it seems almost unthinkable for a film to use them for character-building drama. But Lilo and Stitch, the definitive otherworldly Disney film, is up to the task.
Lilo’s efforts to cure Stitch prove unsuccessful at first, until the film takes to the beach. There, Lilo and Stitch finally connect with one another, with the help of a surfboard and some mountainous waves. Stitch lives for crazy thrills, and while the islands of Hawaii don’t offer much in the way of large-scale madness, the water surrounding them beckons invitingly.
The surfing scene is thrilling to watch, but not because it likens wave-surfing to the outer-space raucousness we saw early in the film. Rather, it turns the supposedly dangerous sport into something gentle, inviting, and fun. The scene has just about everything you could ask for – fluid animation, lovely music, skillful direction, and Nani in a bikini. It should, by predictable rights, be the film’s major emotional turning point. But just when the story has us completely in its clutches, it throws a curve and reminds us, in a jarringly shocking and emotionally constricting scene, that Stitch is not gentle, inviting, and fun. He is still a creature of destruction, something regrettably demonstrated when he feels threatened… at which point, the film branches over to its other, more human threat.
That threat is intimidating social worker Cobra Bubbles, the film’s own visible barrier between Lilo and Nani. Cobra is the closest thing the film has to a human villain, and yet the legal ramification of his job cast a serious and uncomfortable light on the relationship between the girls. His slow humanization over the course of the film (as the consecutive juxtaposition of his two names suggest, Cobra begins the film as a fearsome threat and yet ends it as something lighter and more affable) also makes it unsettlingly easier to understand his reasoning that Nani may not be the best parental figure for her younger sister. Lilo and Stitch may contain a plethora of sci-fi elements (don’t get me started on the E.T. correlation), but it’s the very real problem posed by Cobra’s observances that leads to many of the film’s most difficult-to-watch moments.
Chief among those moments comes in the scene where Nani, upon realizing that Social Services have made up their mind about Lilo, sits her younger sister down and sings the saddest rendition of “Aloha Oe” ever put to soundtrack. Disney films often thrive on emotional heartbreak, but few other scenes are as cuttingly realistic – and thus, as emotionally devastating – as this one.
Lilo and Stitch is very clearly about family, but it uses the Hawaiian word – “Ohana” – to deliver this message in its more potent moments. And when Lilo realizes that her own ohana is coming apart, we get the film’s most powerful example of its chief theme – she offers Stitch the selfless choice to leave, to find his own ohana. (The parallel the film draws to “The Ugly Duckling” works very well, giving us a familiar story path for Stitch’s emotional arc to follow – and then undoing it by reminding us that Stitch has no biological family for him to find.)
To its credit, the third act of the film never loses sight of its three protagonists, even as it takes on an action-film vibe that propels the climax through lots of high-flying action and more than a few laser blasts. The supporting aliens – particularly the weirdly eccentric Jumba and the nervous, authoritative Pleakley – do their part to keep the story moving right up until the end, and if the final twenty minutes seem overly frantic, they at least bring the film to a thundering close.
And honestly, would you expect any other ending than the one we get? Stitch finds his ohana, but it’s not made up of multi-eyed, brightly-colored aliens. Not an especially original or unpredictable message, even by typical Disney standards, but it’s kept fresh thanks to the new angles provided by the sci-fi and Hawaiian elements.
Though it initially appeared to be a tale of early-2000s cynicism, Lilo and Stitch revealed itself to be one of the most heartfelt and endearing films Disney had made in years. Even setting aside the story, it’s one of the studio’s most visually pleasing films. Characters move fluidly and expressively (note how dramatically emotions can shift by just a slight motion of Stitch’s ears), both in the gentle Hawaiian scenes and the more epic space battles. Backgrounds are done in watercolor, giving the island of Kaua’i a bright and serene appearance that opens us up to the minute beauty of the world.
Then there’s the cast. Though they share no physical presence, would you believe, watching the Lilo/Nani squabbling scenes, that Daveigh Chase and Tia Carrere weren’t lifelong sisters? Or that the characters of Cobra, Pleakley, and Gantu would be nearly as lively without the vocal talents of Ving Rhames, Kevin McDonald, or Kevin Michael Richardson? And don’t get me started on the brilliance of the always-great David Ogden Stiers. As Dr. Jumba Jookiba, Stiers strikes a near-unattainable chord between despair, deadpan, and dementia, turning his already funny dialogue into comedy genius. (Stitch, for his part, is voiced by co-writer/co-director Chris Sanders, who is clearly having a field day with the semi-intelligible lines he’s written for himself.)
An understandable hit when it first premiered, Lilo and Stitch spawned three direct-to-video sequels and a TV series. Nothing matched the original, but those interested in watching the story expand its universe may find themselves enjoying the franchise play out. (The TV series in particular, while ultimately hit-or-miss, produced a few great episodes that were worthy follow-ups to the original film.)
Revisiting Lilo and Stitch all these years later, having seen all the sequels and much of the series in the interim, I was surprised by how straightforward the film was, especially once I warmed to its two seemingly abrasive protagonists. But that’s the hidden beauty – at a time when other animation studios were trying to push forward characters who were by nature rude or malicious, Disney upended the tradition with its own personal brand of sweetness and sentimentality – and not coincidentally, made one of the best animated films of the modern era.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ An early parallel between the film’s protagonists: Myrtle and Gantu are bitten by Lilo and Stitch, respectively, prompting each to ask an associate, “Does this look infected to you?”
+ “He took the red one.”
+ Anything and everything about the mosquitoes.
+ Stitch as record-player. I’m pretty sure someone tried to merchandise that.
+ The guy with the ice cream cone. Poor guy.
+ The fight scene between Stitch and Jumba at Lilo’s house, where they play everything from Punch Buggy to Hot Potato.
+ “Oh, good, my dog found the chainsaw!”
+ Jumba reading Stitch his rights in a most Jumba-like way.
+ Stitch antagonizes a frog near the beginning of the film, but then saves it near the end. And that change feels nothing short of earned.
+ “Don’t let those two on my ship.”