Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois
LILO & STITCH is, in effect, this generation’s DUMBO.
Having lost money on previous films THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE and ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE, CEO Michael Eisner decided their next film would have a much smaller scale, a move inspired by the little pachyderm, and it worked.
LILO & STITCH was in fact the first animated feature to use watercolour-painted backgrounds since DUMBO and hand-drawn (if computer-coloured) cells. A conscious effort was made to give it a warmer,old-fashioned look, dispensing with the “Deep Canvas” technique used in TARZAN, ATLANTIS and it’s immediate followup TREASURE PLANET, and having a minimum number of shots using either a “multiplane” or “3D camera” effect. This decision required a lot of background artists to be trained in the technique.
The lead character, Stitch, had been created some fifteen years earlier by head storyboard artist Chris Sanders for an unsuccessful children’s book pitch. Sanders was tasked with developing a treatment for what would become Disney’s first real financial success in years.
Setting the film in Hawaii really helps cement the film; originally set in Kansas, the decision to make the first major animated film set (almost) entirely in Hawaii was a bold move, but when the animation team visited the island of Kaua’i for research, the concept of ‘ohana – a concept that emphasizes that families are bound together and members must cooperate and remember one another – becomes the key theme of the whole series.
SYNOPSIS: This is the story of a boy and a girl. Well, I assume Stitch is male.
He was an illegal experiment, a super-intelligent, indestructible, unstoppable monster created by an evil alien genius. She was a troubled, lonely young Hawaiian sociopath with a rather unique perspective. Inevitably, these two troubled souls meet when his stolen spaceship crash lands on Hawaii, and she adopts him as her new “dog.”
Naming the newcomer “Stitch”, Lilo attempts to train her new dog, unaware of his real nature and doing her best to accept the destructive, borderline-homicidal fuzzball by encouraging him to emulate her musical idol, Elvis Presley. Meanwhile, her elder sister Nani is desperately trying to hold down a job and care for her; having lost their parents in a recent car accident, Nani is in danger of losing Lilo too, as they’re visited by social worker Cobra Bubbles; Mr Bubbles gives Nani three days to improve the situation, or he will have to step in.
Hot on Stitch’s tail are his creator, Doctor Jumba, and his unwilling accomplice, “Earth Expert” Agent Pleakley. Jumba predicts his creation’s actions; “He will be irresistibly drawn to large cities, where he will back up sewers, reverse street signs, and steal everyone’s left shoe.”
Seeing as Hawaii has no large cities (being an island), Stitch suffers a small nervous breakdown, and begrudgingly starts to get to know Lilo.
Jumba’s attempts to recapture his experiment are thwarted by Stitch, but also cause Nani to lose out on any potential jobs going on the island. Both sisters sit on the deserted beach, Nani’s latest attempt at getting a job unintentionally scuppered by Lilo and Stitch. Enter David, an old friend of Nani’s and the kind of friend everyone should have. In an attempt to cheer the girls up, he suggests they take to the waves, and they accept, with a panicking Stitch in tow.
Jumba observes his creation, noting that, inexplicably, he is returning to the ocean, despite knowing he cannot swim nor float. He hits upon an idea.
As Stitch starts to actually enjoy surfing with the others, he is pulled under by Jumba. In the confusion, it looks like Stitch has dragged Lilo down; Nani rescues Lilo, kicking Stitch away and getting her to shore. David dives to retrieve Stitch.
Though everyone is safe and sound, the incident (and every other misadventure) has been observed by Mr Bubbles, who has no alternative but to take Lilo away next morning, for her own safety. He leaves them be for the night, truly sorry for them. Seeing the damage he has unintentionally caused, Stitch leaves, clutching a copy of The Ugly Duckling, in the hopes of finding his family.
The next morning, as Nani sits and waits for Mr Bubbles, David arrives to tell her of a last-minute job offer. Despite everything that’s happened – and about to happen – Nani leaves Lilo alone in the house while she dashes with David to secure the job.
Jumba discovers Stitch, still clutching The Ugly Duckling, and reveals the truth; he can never have a family or “belong”, because Jumba created him to destroy. Stitch races to Lilo’s house, and the subsequent battle decimates the whole building. Nani and Mr Bubbles return to a smoking wreck. As they argue over Lilo’s wellbeing (an argument Nani is losing), Lilo slips away into the forest and finds Stitch, who reveals his true, alien form. Feeling betrayed, Lilo and Stitch are both captured by Captian Gantu, sent on the order of the Grand Councilwoman to finish the job Jumba and Pleakley started. Nani witnesses the hulking alien locking them both in a pod on the back of his spaceship and taking off. Stitch manages to escape the pod, and after getting beaten up by Nani and re-recaptured by Jumba, Stitch convinces them that a) he’s a good guy now, and b) he can save Lilo, but needs their help.
Using Jumba’s own ship, a volcano and a gas tanker, Stitch is able to down Gantu’s ship, and rescue Lilo.
Making their way to shore with David’s help, Stitch is immediately captured again, this time by the Grand Councilwoman herself. Dismissing Gantu and berating Jumba and Pleakley, Stitch politely interrupts her. Asking nicely if he can say goodbye to Lilo, Sticth explains to the Councilwoman that while his new family is small and broken, it’s still good. At Mr Bubbles’ suggestion, Lilo informs the Councilwoman of her legal ownership of Stitch, proving that taking him would constitute stealing from a six-year-old girl.
With this and Stitch’s act of compassion, respect and intelligence, the Councilwoman decrees that he shall live out his exile on Earth, under the watchful eye of former CIA Agent Cobra Bubbles, whom she met some thirty years ago at Roswell, when he had hair.
Quietly abandoning Jumba and Pleakley on Earth as well, the Grand Councilwoman and her troops depart with the disgraced Captain Gantu. The three aliens are adopted into Lilo’s fast-expanding family, rebuilding the house and enjoying their life in Hawaii.
1. Family is important, no matter how broken.
2. Don’t give up on your dreams.
3. There will always be someone to look out for you; sometimes you need to look out for them.
Lilo herself is perhaps one of the most mature leading characters in any Disney film. She may be a little girl, but she carries a huge emotional weight of the movie on her tiny shoulders. Credit where it’s due; Daveigh Chase, who was only nine years old when she voiced Lilo, gives one of the best performances I’ve come across in a long time. And, surprisingly, she’s stayed with the character all the way, voicing her in every episode and film except one; when Chase was busy voicing Lilo for the series, she asked her friend Dakota Fanning to voice the character for LILO & STITCH 2: STITCH HAS A GLITCH.
Tia Carrere voices Nani, who – while filling a lot of the “single mom in kids movies” tropes – finds something new to add. It’s likely the fact that she’s Lilo’s older sister, and as such can get away with being, well, less than maternal at times. Having to care for Lilo and hold down any job she can, Nani has a hidden strength (and I’m not talking about how she can leave a perfect bootprint in a car’s front bumper). While she jokes and threatens Lilo, it’s clear that neither could really live without the other, and that Nani would do anything for her… even if it means giving her up. It’s also clear that she cares deeply about and respects her sister, her imagination and her habits. She does everything she can to keep Lilo as she is, never demanding that she grow up or that she’s wrong.
Stitch, voiced by writer and director Chris Sanders, is, dare I say it, pretty bland as Disney heroes go. Sure he’s lovable and misunderstood and all, but it’s all been done before. Sanders gives his all as Stitch, sounding at times like Gollum as a toddler, and it’s easy to see how Stitch has found his way into the hearts of a generation. Perhaps its because he’s given too many talents; as well as super-strength and invulnerability, he’s given a mile-long shopping list of special abilities, from dancing and playing the guitar to acting as a record player.
But while Stitch may have his name in the titles, he’s not the most heroic character.
David, voiced by Jason Scott Lee, is for me one of the greatest heroes in any Disney film. He’s not a prince, nor a soldier. He’s not fighting for his life or threatened in any way. As the waters rise around Nani and Lilo, he’s there with a lifeline. He may come across as naïve and a bit of an airhead, and is just as clumsy as Nani, but he stands by their side as everything and everyone around them begins to crumble.
Most notably, when Lilo and Stitch are pulled underwater by Jumba, David dives back down to rescue Stitch, even though he and Nani believe he’s threatened Lilo’s life; because even if Stitch is dangerous, he knows that Lilo would be devastated if she lost her new best friend.
David Kawena is a true Disney prince amongst men.
Jumba (David Ogden Stiers, veteran of a half-dozen Disney films and most recognisable as Cogsworth) is by his own admission an evil genius, and has 626 superpowered illegal experiments to prove the point, but he doesn’t come across as that villainous at times. True, his attempts to capture Stitch ruin and threaten Lilo and Nani’s lives, and he shows no real remorse, but after learning that 626 has developed beyond his programming and that Lilo’s life is in danger as a direct result of his actions, he and Stitch put aside their differences to rescue her.
Social worker (and former CIA man) Cobra Bubbles (voiced by Ving Rhames in essentially an extended reference to PULP FICTION) may come across as an antagonist at the beginning, and his lurking just in frame for half the film doesn’t help, but he has Lilo’s welfare in mind. He is articulate and polite, never losing his cool, and let’s not forget, it’s his subtle reminder of Lilo’s legally binding adoption papers that keeps the family together.
Kevin Michael Richardson’s Captain Gantu, on the other hand, does show a considerable amount of malice towards Stitch – admonishing him as an abomination and an affront to nature, and openly threatening him in front of his officers. When he’s sent to retrieve 626, he thinks nothing of Lilo, dismissing her as an “in-flight snack”. You could argue that like Bubbles, Gantu is doing his job, but he shows no real empathy or compassion.
Losing his commission, his ship and his freedom, Gantu ends up becoming one of the franchise’s lasting antagonists.
I’m not really going to count Mertle, Lilo’s “rival”; she’s a rude, spoilt little bitch, sure, but she barely registers as a villain.
SIDEKICKS AND HENCHMEN
Having already put David up as a Hero, there’s no one that really fits the sidekick role. Both the Councilwoman and Gantu have their own staff and crew, but none are named and each only has a handful of lines.
As for henchmen, there are kids who don’t like Lilo and constantly ostracise her for her “weirdness”, but that’s just kids being kids. The fact that Lilo has a rather wide violent streak doesn’t help.
The only character that really fits the criteria is Kevin McDonald’s Pleakley, who is there for little more than comic relief and the odd bit of exposition. Self-appointed “expert” on Earth, he’s sent to assist Jumba, and does his best to keep him under control, but more often than not is just the fall guy.
Beginning as an animated space opera, LILO & STITCH quickly turns into one of the sweetest and most mature films Disney has ever released; for all its comedy, it deals with a lot of heavy issues; There are plenty of Disney films featuring orphans, but this is the first that really deals with how a family deals with such a loss as that of its parents.
Stitch’s journey to find his own ‘ohana forms the core story, and at times it’s heartrending, but it runs parallel to a tale of two sisters faced with the deepest of tragedies and doing what they can to pick up the pieces, helped and hindered by their own future ‘ohana.
And what other animated film has a social worker as a sympathetic character, rather than the villain?
LILO & STITCH piles on the sight gags and slapstick, including some really subtle stuff that can go unnoticed for years (watch the posters), and there’s plenty of gross-out humour courtesy of Stitch. But like all the best family films, there’s a lot of adult comedy in there too.
Jumba and Pleakley are our Timon and Pumba here, even if they’re reversed somewhat, carrying a lot of the base humour, while everyone has their own little comedy moment – from David’s clumsiness to the Grand Councilwoman’s acerbic tongue.
Much like Superman or Jack Harkness, knowing that Stitch is virtually indestructible rather softens the peril, but things get a little hairy for Lilo at times. As such it’s pretty light on actual scares; the only standout moment for me is when Jumba appears, half-glimpsed in a wave, as he dives to grab Stitch from Nani’s surfboard.
MORAL OR EDUCATIONAL VALUE
Neither Stitch, Lilo or Nani prove to be particularly good role models; both Stitch and Lilo easily resort to violence, while Nani has a habit of leaving her six-year-old sister alone in the house, leaving the stove on etc. But Nani does what many parent’s can’t; she lets her little sister be who she is, and heaven help anyone who tells her otherwise.
But if I had to pick one character as a role model, it’s David. At his core, he is a good and caring person, doing his best to keep his best friends together.
The core concept of family, and how it can take any shape or form, is one of the oldest and most powerful, and its beautifully realised here.
MUSIC AND SONGS
Alan Silvestri’s orchestral score is complemented by a traditional Hawaiian chorus and, perhaps a first for a Disney film, a half-dozen songs provided – often in context – by Elvis Presley, whom Lilo adores. Much like Phil Collins for TARZAN, Presley’s work helps bind the film together, while the remixes over the end credits are…decent enough.
“Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride” is the song everyone talks about, and it’s a beautiful love letter to the state and how the simple things can make life worth living, but it’s Nani’s simple lullaby, ‘Aloha ‘Oe’, and Tia Carrere’s haunting vocals, that hit me hardest.
LILO & STITCH has perhaps one of the most surprising legacies of all the Disney 53.
2003’s STITCH! THE MOVIE sees Gantu returning to Hawaii working for the evil Dr. Jacques von Hämsterviel – Jumba’s former partner and financier, escaped from prison to reclaim “his” work – which results in setting up LILO & STITCH: THE SERIES, wherein all 625 of Stitch’s experimental predecessors are released from captivity and spread across Hawaii; Lilo, Stitch and their extended ‘ohana are tasked with collecting the experiments, and help them find their “one true place”. It ran for 65 episodes over two seasons between 2003-2006 and crossing over with a handful of other Disney Channel shows such as KIM POSSIBLE and RECESS. The series ended with the 2006 movie LEROY & STITCH, which has all 626 experiments engage in battle with an army of Leroys – clones of Jumba’s latest creation, each with all of Stitch’s powers and a couple new to spare.
An “official” sequel was released in 2005. STITCH HAS A GLITCH starts with a slight recon to Stitch’s established origin and reveals that because he was never “fully charged”, he begins to suffer increasing dangerous outbursts that not only threaten Lilo’s chances at the May Day hula contest, but also her life. It has a particularly mawkish “love conquers all” ending but overall is quite sweet.
March 2008 saw the announcement of a reimagined version of the series titled simply STITCH!. Beginning in October 2008, it’s apparently set some 20 years later and sees Stitch befriend a Japanese girl named Yuna on a fictional Japanese island. Produced by Madhouse, it’s effectively a reboot of the original story, and ran for four seasons and a good 120 episodes, but has had some trouble reaching past the Japanese market.
Stitch continues to be a popular and endearing Disney creation. It’s quite telling that a smaller production designed to save money gave Disney one of its most bankable stars of recent years. LILO & STITCH is a little gem of a film with a great mix of characters, story and soundtrack that lift it up above many of its more legendary peers.
FINAL SCORE: 41/53
NEXT TIME: TREASURE PLANET