Lilo & Stitch has become a movie audiences love to hate due to Disney dumping the character of Stitch everywhere they possibly could immediately after release. He’s on merchandise, there’s sequels, a short-lived television show, and he even kicked out evil aliens and gained his own ride (to the chagrin of Disney World fans) at Walt Disney World. Stitch overload has placed a damper on the movie, especially since the character changed from his original inception, à la Tinkerbell. Ignoring all of that, Lilo & Stitch was a game changer for the Disney Company, and a return to form, propelling the humor and story into darker places. I haven’t watched the movie all the way through in years, but rewatching it brought up a wealth of emotions and laughs as if it was the first time.
Alien experiment 626 lands on the island of Hawaii where he’s adopted by a lonely girl named Lilo (voiced by Daveigh Chase). Unfortunately, Lilo has her own problems; her sister, Nani (voiced by Tia Carrere) isn’t having the easiest time raising her and could lose Lilo forever.
Lilo & Stitch is analogous to Dumbo; both in terms of story, animation style, and its intent within the canon. After the dismal failures of Dinosaur and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Disney needed a hit; one that didn’t rely on flashy CGI and action, as those two hadn’t proved to be what audiences wanted. Instead, they went with a smaller (i.e. less expensive to produce) , intimate tale of a Hawaiian girl and her pet “dog” named Stitch. It was a similar format as when Disney produced Dumbo in the 1940s after the failures of Fantasia and Pinocchio. The animation style also hearkens back to Dumbo as the animators gave up entirely on CGI and deep focus (used in Tarzan) in favor of watercolor backgrounds which hadn’t been used since, you guessed it, Dumbo. The watercolor backgrounds are a beautiful return to form, and work perfectly for this picture considering it’s set on Hawaii. Even though it’s apparent that the background are watercolors – with a muted tone compared to the foreground – it isn’t as marked a contrast which creates a sense of unity and community.
Where Lilo & Stitch soars is in the humor and relationships. Director Chris Sanders (who co-directed, co-wrote, and is the voice of Stitch) has been known for his realistic, sardonic sense of humor and that’s what surprised me when this movie came out. The humor is markedly “un-Disney.” Ironically, Stitch is a character with the least amount of subversive humor, although there is a self-awareness of monster movies epitomized by Stitch creating San Francisco in Lilo’s bedroom and destroying it. Lilo is the character with the blackest sense of humor, from the minute she punches and bites a girl at hula class. Lilo is a girl you believe could exist in the world, or at least reminded me of myself. Her gathering up of her friends – drawn on spoons in a mock voodoo ritual – and stuffing them into a pickle jar is something I could have done as a kid. Daveigh Chase’s claim to fame in The Ring (she was the “seven days” girl) wouldn’t come out for another three months, but now her flat proclamation, “My friends need to be punished” still gives me shivers.
Believe it or not the family unit in the movie actually produced a bit of controversy upon release. This was the first time a female matriarch wasn’t downright evil and wasn’t a mother! Nani is Lilo’s sister, forced into a motherly role after the death of their parents. That could have been all, but an added subplot sees a social worker, aptly named Cobra Bubbles (voiced by Ving Rhames), arrive to inspect Nani’s parenting. At the time, some considered it “too real,” but Sanders and crew understand that characters and jobs like this exist and don’t require hideing. Cobra Bubbles isn’t a villain – in fact, every character has a moral goodness within them, so there really aren’t any clear-cut villains in the movie – but wants to protect and do what’s best for Lilo. The real-world applications pushed Disney into being relevant for the first time (and the removal of Sanders during Bolt effectively shut the door on any future relevancy within the company). The theme of the movie is family, and finding where you belong, but also about finding your inner morality. Stitch is built to destroy, and has to find where his boundaries are; the same with Cobra Bubbles and even the Grand Councilwoman (voiced by Zoe Caldwell).
Stitch himself is great, especially in the characterizations that lead you to believe he’s a dog. Yes, they should have realized he isn’t a dog, but there are subtle tics around the ears and face that are dog-like. IMDB says that there was a fear audiences wouldn’t understand Stitch’s emotions, and thus they gave him a more animated personality. I never felt that for an instant. The big expressive eyes on Stitch, with the movement of his ears, gave all the necessary emotion required. The Stitch overload has died down in the ten years since this movie’s release (it’s been TEN YEARS!), and I think Stitch is worthy of being reclaimed as one of the best characters invented in the ’00s.
Add to this a rollicking Elvis Presley soundtrack – only in Hawaii – and you have the makings of the best film Disney made in the 2000s. There’s a few more left in the decade, but so far Lilo & Stitch remains my favorite. Stitch became a nuisance for a bit, putting a damper on the movie itself, but if you haven’t seen it in a few years go watch it!
NEXT WEEK: We’re taking another trip into literary adaptations with Disney’s Treasure Planet
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.