Like Stitch’s spacecraft crashlanding on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, Disney’s Lilo & Stitch is a bolt from the blue. Sharply creative and surprisingly human, Lilo & Stitch may be the studio’s strongest work since Aladdin or The Lion King, and one of Disney animation’s most unusual features ever.
Certainly there’s never been a Disney heroine quite like little Lilo (voiced by Daveigh Chase, now 11, of Donny Darko and A.I.). Like all her recent Disney predecessors, Lilo is high-spirited and spunky — but she’s also troubled, highly imaginative, introverted, and vulnerable.
In an early scene, she gets into a fight with another little girl in dance class, and bites her.
When she quarrels with her teenaged sister Nani (Tia Carrere), who’s been trying to raise Lilo since their parents died in an accident, it’s not the rebellious defiance of an Ariel, but the unreasoning lashing out of a child unsure of her boundaries and wanting to be loved.
And when she meets Stitch, a vicious little space alien who looks something like a rabid blue koala with optional extra appendages, Lilo sees him as what she needs and wants him to be: a friendly pet whose sometimes unsettling behavior suggests to her only that he too is troubled and looking for love.
Quite definitely there’s never been a Disney character
remotely like Stitch (voiced by screenwriter /
And no wonder: He’s the result of illegal genetic experimentation on an alien world — the creation of an extraterrestrial mad scientist (David Ogden Stiers), programmed for destruction and mayhem. "He’s bulletproof, fireproof, and can think faster than a supercomputer," Stitch’s proud creator explains to an aghast interstellar assembly. "His only instinct… to destroy everything he touches."
Like the far larger protagonist of The Iron Giant, Stitch is essentially an outer-space weapon — but unlike Iron Giant, Stitch knows from the outset what he is, and has no interest in being anything else. Of course, the filmmakers have other plans for him.
If this doesn’t sound like Disney as usual, it isn’t. In fact, Lilo & Stitch feels more like a quirky independent project than a mainstream big-studio creation — and that’s all to the good.
Like The Iron Giant, Lilo & Stitch resembles E.T. in its basic premise: a lonely young child with a troubled family life befriends an extraterrestrial entity.
Yet where those films gave us little or no insight into the unguessed science-fiction worlds from which their alien beings came, Lilo & Stitch ushers us into a whimsical, colorful science-fiction world, with spacecraft dogfights, alien technology, and imaginative creature design — a world that comes off like Men in Black by way of Osmosis Jones.
Nor is Earth culture neglected. Luminous watercolor backgrounds, a throwback to the glory days of Bambi and Pinocchio, evoke the vibrant, glowing colors of Hawaii. For the first time in ages, a specific culture in a Disney cartoon feels like a genuine source of creative inspiration, rather than a mere occasion for a political-correctness object lesson. (Compare to the Latino milieu of Spy Kids, rather than the American Indian world of Pocahontas.)
The human figures are also a departure from the Disney norm. Willowy Barbie-doll female figures are nowhere to be seen (or rather, appear only in a brief scene with a gaggle of young girls clutching literal Barbie dolls), and characters have an appealingly solid construction.
The theme of family — or ’ohanu, the Hawaiian term used in the film — plays a key role in Lilo & Stitch, but in a way that’s neither saccharine nor troubling. Like so many Disney heroines, Lilo and Nani are orphans, but this film is much more honest and insightful than the larger Disney tradition about the difficulties of growing up without parents. "Are we a broken family?" Lilo sadly asks Nani, who answers quickly, "No, of course not! Well… maybe a little… okay, a lot."
Lilo & Stitch doesn’t shy from the harsh realities of Lilo’s social awkwardness and latchkey existence, or Nani’s spotty record as breadwinner-homemaker. When Ving Rhames as an ominously oversized (and overdressed) social worker named Cobra Bubbles threatens to take Lilo away from Nani, urging Nani to think about what’s best for Lilo, it’s hard not to see his point.
Yet in the end, as Stitch somehow becomes a part of this household, it’s also possible to say of this family, as one character does: "It is little, and broken… but still good. Yes, still good." I appreciated the way the film handled these issues (although between the dicey aspects of Lilo’s personal and family life and the sci‑fi action the film easily earns its PG rating, and parents of young or sensitive children should exercise caution).
I also appreciate the way the issues surrounding Stitch’s creation and exile were depicted. At first, when Stitch — or "Experiment 626" as his creator dubs him — was rejected as an "affront to nature" by the leaders of the Galactic Federation, I was worried that moral concerns relating to biotech issues and the creation of life would get a raw deal (after all, isn’t Stitch the hero?).
But the Federation’s approach actually comes off rather well. For one thing, Stitch’s creator is clearly a nut who should never have done what he did. Secondly, the Federation leaders, though horrified by Stitch’s existence, first seek to determine whether he (or it) is merely a monster, or a rational moral agent. When Stitch appears to be irrational, they decide to exile him (rather than destroy him). Then, when in the end Stitch finally proves capable of growing beyond his violent programming, it doesn’t come across like "See what good can come out of supposed affronts to nature," but more like "People can’t be blamed for where they come from, even if it’s bad."
Humor ranges from broad slapstick to sly in-jokes aimed at parents and other adults. One recurring joke involves a sly satire of environmental extremism: Humans, we learn, aren’t highly regarded as a species by the interstellar community — but we do enjoy protected status, for a very funny reason: The Galactic Federation has declared mosquitoes an endangered species, and humans are an important part of the mosquito food chain. This premise plays out in a number of amusing gags, with a final absurdity revealed during a Men in Black moment in the film’s last scenes. Who’d have thought a Disney cartoon would go there?
Does all this mean that Disney, after some floundering with undistinguished genre pictures like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, has finally found their own new groove? It’s almost better than that. The best products of the late, great Disney renaissance — works like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid — were delightful films, but like all of Disney nouveau they were built on a basic formula: a spunky protagonist longing for something more, a love interest, cute sidekicks, a nefarious villain, and big show-stopping musical productions.
By contrast, Lilo & Stitch is a unique imaginative achievement that succeeds in its own right, without laying down any kind of template for future films to follow. Attempts to repeat its success, to make it into a formula, would be a dismal failure, unless perhaps the formula were to be "Give the creative people room to try something new and let them work without a safety net." What a concept.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.