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Disney Sundays: Lilo & Stitch (2002)

          You know, there’s something to be said for animated movies with small, simple coming-of-age stories that are still tremendously meaningful. Movies like Winnie the Pooh, Wolf Children, My Neighbour Totoro and a crap-ton of other Studio Ghibli films. They resonate with us for reasons we can’t quite understand -relatable characters or conflict? Atmosphere or tone? Music? Whatever it is, it’s great at sucking us in. These kind of films are very sweet and endearing despite their simplistic set-ups; and they’re the films I’m reminded of when I watch Disney’s Lilo & Stitch.
          Don’t get me wrong, this movie has plenty of big things going on, with the alien hunt and a bunch of Stitch’s mishaps to name a few. But the stakes aren’t world-impacting, and these characteristics really aren’t important. As is often reiterated in the film, it’s primary theme is family, and Lilo & Stitch relates this with such focus and heart that it makes the film both classically Disney (the most-so since at least The Lion King) and very unique.
          An alien biological weapon called Experiment 626 escapes custody and crash lands on Earth, Hawaii to be specific (what are the chances?). There he’s mistaken for a dog and adopted by a little girl called Lilo who’s something of an outcast for her impulsive behaviour. As Lilo and her new pet whom she names Stitch bond, they have to contend with not only the alien authorities trying to retrieve  him, but a social worker unimpressed with Lilo’s sister Nani’s stressful attempts to raise her.
          As you probably know from tumblr, Lilo’s name means “lost” in Hawaiian while Stitch means …stitch. Lilo’s name isn’t as big a deal as a website like that would have you believe, because it just makes sense. The parallels between the two characters are made pretty obvious by, for example, their tendency to bite and the mutual response of those around them: “does this look infected to you?” We’ve seen the story of two outcasts finding each other before, as well as the undisciplined pet that no one believes in but the kindly youth cliché. But what makes this film interesting is the “Stitch” part of that theme. Disney hasn’t had a whole lot of family stories. Many of their characters have been missing a mother, have found surrogate families, but Lilo & Stitch feels like it’s the first time they’ve really tackled family as a theme and succeeded in any way. But more than that, it portrays a broken family -two sisters in a difficult relationship not long after their parents’ death. And so Stitch being the unlikely thread that binds them as his name suggests, I think is the more clever naming choice and gives his character a nobler purpose.
          Lilo & Stitch’s premise on its own is dull and contrived, but the movie has a way of taking established story and characters tropes and breathing new life into them. For example this film’s take on the importance of family is conveyed through a specific Hawaiian term “ohana” which puts more an emphasis on the environment and local culture. Hawaii is a very interesting setting after all -not just for the paradise factor, but for its seclusion and the fact that such a rich culture and history derives from this confined part of the world. We’ll be getting back to Hawaii when I end this series with the upcoming Moana, but where Lilo & Stitch is concerned it’s a place that really adds to the otherwise prosaic feeling of loneliness. On a related note, we’ve seen the outcast character before (hell, Disney’s had plenty) but this film’s title misfits are grounded in a very identifiable setting. This is Disney’s first modern set movie since Oliver & Company but rather than exploit current culture like that film did, it  chooses to tell an honest story about real people. Taking Stitch as an alien out of the picture, it’s a very real coming-of-age story as a girl tries to find comfort and belonging in a pet while her sister desperately tries to keep an institution from separating them. It’s a conflict that hits closer to home and allows you to engage more with the characters.
          And these are some really great characters. Lilo is Disney’s most realistic kid by a mile! She’s odd, she has mood swings, she lashes out but has a sense of humour, she likes making trouble, she’s reckless, emotional, she behaves like kids in the early 2000s did. And I should know, I was one. She’s voiced by Daveigh Chase who’s also the voice of Chihiro in Spirited Away, and she’s fantastic. Stitch’s manic energy and unexpectedness which was one of the films’ selling points, I never much cared for, and some of the humour surrounding him doesn’t work. But he does make for an interesting enough companion for Lilo. His voice (provided by director Chris Sanders) is unique, and the emotional moments work well enough for hi,m especially with the Ugly Duckling motif. I like how he had a visible character journey which the “pet” characters in these kind of movies don’t usually get. However though the story’s more focussed on him, I think Lilo’s the better lead. Their relationship is supposed to be the heart of the story and while it is very tender, cute, and fun a lot of the time, I was much more invested in the human relationship between Lilo and Nani. Nani is immediately sympathetic as a put-upon teenager forced by circumstance to raise her little sister. Voiced with wonderful sensitivity by Tia Carrere, we see that she isn’t an ideal parent but she’s trying her damnedest. Her relationship with Lilo is incredibly believable. They’re at each others throats some of the time, especially when Lilo’s in a mood to sabotage a social services inspection. But in other scenes with calmed attitudes, they’re very loving and joke with each other. I particularly love Nani telling Lilo she was fired from her job because her boss was a vampire. Even in such a dire moment they can have an exchange like that. I love the fact that through these two characters Disney’s hitting multiple demographics: kids will relate to Lilo while teens and young adults will relate to Nani. You feel the stress of their situation and despite the larger alien plot, it’s the threat that these two will be separated that you really care about. Plus who wouldn’t be afraid of a social worker played by Ving Rhames? Who even decided to make Ving Rhames a social worker in the first place? But even his Mr. Bubbles has a moment of genuine care here and there, and given what he’s privy to, you kinda understand his assertion that Lilo’s being raised in an unfit environment. He doesn’t get to see scenes like Nani singing to Lilo in a hammock. These little quiet moments of character and situation really make the movie for me -they’re so fuelled by atmosphere and emotion in a seemingly effortless way, and Stitch’s presence can actually make some of them better.
         Which is why I sometimes don’t care for the alien stuff. The opening’s okay as it’s got some funny jokes at the expense of Earth’s insignificance (the movie in general has some surprisingly good ones, like the running mosquito gag), we get to see velociraptor aliens, and it just generally gives context for the rest of the story. And the two other alien characters we follow throughout I enjoy. Jumba, the mad scientist alien with a Russian accent who created Stitch is enjoyable. He’s got a creative design and is voiced very well by Disney regular David Ogden Stiers. His aide Pleakley voiced by Kid in the Hall Kevin McDonald has an even more enjoyable design with one eye, two tongues, three legs and comically fitting agility. He’s a bit of a transvestite and has an enjoyable neurotic personality. They make for some pretty decent comic relief as they attempt to recapture Stitch, occasionally making things worse for Stitch’s new family. I will say though I think it was a missed opportunity that the film never touched on Stitch and Jumba’s relationship that much, since Jumba is for all intents and purposes, Stitch’s father. At the very least it could have factored into Jumba’s decision in the climax. The rest of the alien stuff I could actually do without. Kevin Michael Richardson’s Gantu is funny, but when he enters the picture the plot kind of loses steam -which is weird considering that’s where the “action” starts. The aliens come back for the climax and I’m not gonna lie, it’s pretty dumb. I’m not going to spoil it for those who haven’t seen, but it’s Finding Dory levels of ridiculousness. And it includes a joke from Nani’s boyfriend David that’s pretty cringe-worthy. 
          But among the ludicrousness, Lilo & Stitch still ends on a nice note. It has a number of corny sequences that are trying to be cute or off-colour, like when Stitch becomes an Elvis impersonator, but even they get a pass for the charm of the rest of the film. Taking away the beginning which is just average and the ending which is over-the-top, you’re left with a pretty fantastic coming-of-age drama done with more realism and maturity than most films from Disney. The team who made this film would go on to leave Disney and make How to Train Your Dragon for DreamWorks, which works for a lot of the same reasons (and Toothless does bear more than a passing resemblance to Stitch). This film’s success also led to an animated series I remember liking. But I think the best thing Lilo & Stitch did was it set a new bar for excellence after the Disney Renaissance. It’s certainly Disney’s first great film following that era and is deservingly so, a modern classic of the studio.

Next Week: Treasure Planet (2002)

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