Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois
In space, the Galactic Federation arrests Dr. Jumba Jookiba for illegal genetic experimentation. The creature he created, called Experiment 626, is a small blue thing that possesses tremendous strength and an insatiable desire to destroy. It is sent to be imprisoned on a deserted asteroid, but escapes and crash-lands on Earth. The head of the Federation sends Dr. Jumba, accompanied by her Earth expert, Agent Pleakley, to retrieve the experiment.
Meanwhile, Lilo is a young girl in Hawaii who’s being raised by her sister Nani after the death of their parents. Lilo has been acting out ever since, which is causing issues between Nani and the (strangely large and intimidating) social worker assigned to their case. In an effort to get Lilo to behave, Nani takes her to the local animal shelter to adopt a dog. There, they find Experiment 626, who was taken in as a stray and is (rather poorly) impersonating an Earth dog. Lilo immediately takes a liking to him and talks Nani into letting her adopt him, naming him Stitch.
Between Stitch’s destructive tendencies and the alien agents’ attempts to recapture him, Nani ends up losing her job, as well as botching every attempt to secure a new one. The social worker threatens to take Lilo away from Nani unless she can find a job. To ease her frustration, Nani’s friend David treats them to a day surfing on the beach. Things seem to be going well, until Dr. Jumba grabs Stitch from under the water and Lilo gets dragged down with him. Nani and David manage to save Lilo from drowning, but the social worker observes what happened, and informs them that he’ll be there in the morning to take Lilo to foster care.
Fed up with their bumbling agents, the Galactic Federation sends the high-ranking officer Captain Gantu to finish the job. While Nani is away making one last-ditch effort to get a job, Dr. Jumba and Pleakley attack Stitch at the house. Lilo and Stitch fight them off, but the house gets destroyed in the process. As Nani and the social worker argue, Lilo runs off. Stitch reveals that he’s an alien to her, and apologizes for ruining her life. However, they’re both captured by Captain Gantu.
Stitch escapes, but Lilo is trapped on Gantu’s ship. Stitch manages to convince Dr. Jumba to help rescue her, and they all hop on Jumba’s ship in pursuit. After managing to rescue Lilo (and saving Gantu’s life in the process), the group is confronted by the Grand Councilwoman herself when they land. The social worker reveals himself to be a former CIA operative with experience in dealing with aliens, and together with Lilo they negotiate a new deal. Stitch will now be exiled to Earth, with Lilo and Nani as his caretakers.
Late in the Renaissance period, Disney CEO Michael Eisner decided that the scope and budgets of Disney’s movies were starting to get out of control. Never a cheap medium to begin with, the production budgets of movies like Hercules and Mulan were starting to push the $100 million range (and Tarzan would do well over it). He wanted to find a project that could be done on the cheap, much like Dumbo had been after the big expenditures of Pinocchio and Fantasia. After hearing a couple of pitches, he had a meeting with Chris Sanders, a storyboard artist who’d recently co-written the script to Mulan. Sanders pitched a movie based on a picture book he’d tried to make back in the 1980s, about an alien that gets adopted by a human girl.
Sanders and his co-director Dean DeBlois decided to keep the pre-production and storyboarding group small, in keeping with Eisner’s intentions of producing a low budget movie. Most of the character designs were done by Sanders himself, using his own personal drawing style instead of the Disney house style. They also made the decision to change the movie’s location from the original Kansas to the more exotic Hawaii. Not only would it give the movie a much more colorful visual palette, but it was a location that hadn’t really been explored in animation before.
To help capture an authentic Hawaiian feel, they cast two Hawaiian actors, Tia Carrere and Jason Scott Lee, as Nani and David. They were allowed to rewrite their dialogue to incorporate more authentic Hawaiian slang and speech patterns. Sanders and DeBlois also incorporated the Hawaiian concept of ‘ohana as an important part of the movie’s plot and themes.
A significant part of the final act of the movie ended up having to be completely redone. The original climax featured Stitch and the rest of the rescue party hijacking a 747 at the airport and pursuing Gantu’s ship through downtown Honolulu. They were already partially done animating it, with CG model planes and everything. And then September 11th happened. The animators were able to salvage the scene by replacing the 747 model with a different alien one (which is why Jumba’s ship is so incongruously larger than Gantu’s), and switching the background of streets and skyscrapers with a narrow river gorge.
In the end, they didn’t manage to make Eisner’s low-budget movie. The production costs came in at around $80 million. However, that made it the cheapest Disney movie since Mulan, and it managed to turn a profit for the studio despite opening in second place (behind Minority Report). It was also a hit with the critics, and became the only 2000s Disney movie to get a significant number of TV and direct-to-DVD spin-offs. It even got a three-season anime, set in Okinawa!
The post-Renaissance Disney films seem to have fallen into a Star Trek-esque, every-other-movie pattern. While Dinosaur and Atlantis were both underwhelming (the former more so), both The Emperor’s New Groove and Lilo & Stitch are quality entries into the Disney canon. And while I may rewatch ENG more, Lilo & Stitch may actually be the bigger accomplishment. In fact, it’s probably the best thing they put out in the entire decade.
In both movies’ cases, they’re successful precisely because they deviate from the typical Disney norm. Emperor’s New Groove had a zany tone that was much more fitting with Warner Bros. than it was Disney, and never took itself too seriously. Lilo & Stitch, on the other hand, does have some quite serious moments, leading up to a rather heart-breaking rendition of “Aloha Oe” as Nani prepares for Lilo to be taken away from her.
No, it’s everything ELSE about Lilo & Stitch that’s unusual for Disney. Due to the scaling back of the movie’s budget, there was also a corresponding easing of the reins on the part of the studio bosses. Sanders and DeBlois were subsequently able to take massive deviations from the Disney house style. The character designs are both memorable and unlike anything else in the canon. Stitch himself is definitely my favorite of the bunch: a four-armed, blue koala-shark that nevertheless manages to be cute and endearing, when he’s not wrecking stuff. I enjoyed the character so much that I actually kinda wish that the movie had come out when I was in my early teens instead of while I was in college. I’d have watched the heck out of the Lilo & Stitch TV show at that age.
The human characters are no less interesting. Lilo definitely has….issues. She’s clearly been traumatized by the death of her parents, though I get the sense that she was never the most socially mainstream of girls to begin with. What other Disney protagonist is introduced trying to feed a peanut butter sandwich to a fish that she claims controls the weather, before beating the fuck out of a classmate? At one point, she even comments to Nani about how broken their family is. Yes, the movie is funny. But it’s also quite dark at times.
The music is also another major point of diversion from the Disney style. While the post-Renaissance movies had drifted away from the Broadway musical template, they still all featured original music composed specifically for the film (again, leaving out Fantasia 2000, as it’s kind of an outlier that doesn’t really fit with either the Renaissance or post-Renaissance periods). And yes, Lilo & Stitch does have a couple of original songs. But the soundtrack for the most part is dominated by a musician who’d been dead for 25 years at the point the movie was released: Elvis Presley. They licensed five Presley songs for use in the movie, with a cover of a sixth one being used for the credits. It’s the most extensive use of existing popular music in a Disney film since the package film days. They’re not used like a jukebox musical, either. Lilo’s love of Elvis’s music is an important part of the plot, as she attempts to use Elvis as a role model to help improve Stitch’s behavior. This leads up to one of the most amusing and surreal images from the movie: Stitch dressed up as a weird, blue Elvis impersonator, complete with pompadour wig.
Now, it’s not a perfect movie. The movie’s focus, as the title suggests, is on Lilo and Stitch. And with all of the family drama surrounding them, there isn’t much time for any actual villains (unless you consider Stitch’s chaotic programming to be the movie’s true villain, and there’s a case to be made for that). Jumba and Pleakley are the antagonists for most of the movie, but they’re more in the bumbling henchmen tradition. Captain Gantu shows up to capture Stitch at the end, but he’s really just doing the job he was given by his government, much in the way that the social worker was doing his when he tried to take Lilo away from Nani. Now, I don’t think that movies really need significant villains. Relationship dramas frequently don’t. But what was the last Disney movie that didn’t have one (which wasn’t a package film)? Maybe Sword in the Stone?
This is an unusual entry into the Disney canon, as idiosyncratic as both of its title characters. However, that very uniqueness might be why I appreciate it as much. Sanders and DeBlois were willing to take some risks, and I think that they paid off in spades. This happens to be the last Disney movie that I actually saw in theaters for years, and I think I picked the right movie to go out on. It’s all downhill from here for a while.
Animation: A- (There’s nothing flashy about the animation this time around, but the character designs are some of the best in years, and the CG is the best-integrated into the 2-D animation that they’ve had yet)
Main Characters: A (I adore Stitch. And Lilo actually reminds me a lot of myself)
Supporting Characters: A- (Nani’s story is even more heartbreaking now that I’m in my late 30s and can see my brother with his own children)
Villains: B- (Captain Gantu is about as intimidating as you’d expect a nine-foot-tall shark person to be. But he’s only in the movie for like 10 minutes at the beginning and end, and Jumba & Pleakley are more comic relief than anything else)
Music: B+ (The Elvis music works surprisingly well as a soundtrack)