Lilo & Stitch is another movie that I hadn’t seen since it came out, remembered very little about, and very much surprised me when I re-watched it before writing this article. A movie that I found ok when it came out (bare in mind, I was a ten-year-old child), was actually a much more beautiful and delicate piece of animation. Productions at Disney are a very collaborative effort that doesn’t leave much space to what we would call auteurs. Movies usually have more than one director, with the contribution of many different voices and sensibilities, not to mention the inspecting eyes of the studio executives. There are rarely any movies in the Canon that you can point to and say this is a movie by so-and-so director. We saw a pretty clear auteurist bend in Mark Dindal’s comedic treatment of The Emperor’s New Groove, but I think there may not be any clearer example of a movie driven by one man’s voice than Lilo and Stitch.
But how did this movie come to be? Well, the late nineties were a time in which every Disney project seemed to be the most ambitious thing ever, going for broke on movies such as Fantasia 2000 and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Movies that, if you recall, weren’t exactly successful in their reception by critics, audiences, or most of the time, both. In order to counter-attack these failures, the studio decided to go back to a strategy that worked in the past. Back in the forties, when ambitious productions such as Pinocchio and Fantasia failed at the box-office, Disney scored a big hit with a little movie about a flying elephant made on the cheap called Dumbo. Similarly, what Michael Eisner was going for when he greenlit Lilo & Stitch, was trying to make a cheap and simple movie that would easily appeal to children. Chris Sanders had created the Stitch character a long time ago, and his pitch about a mischievous blue alien was childish enough for Eisner.
Lilo & Stitch is the story of a blue alien designed by an evil alien genius to be an uncontrollable monster with a thirst for destruction. The galactic federation or some sort of organization like that decides that he must be exterminated, but the clever little alien manages to escape and crash-lands on Earth. Before you think this sounds too Star-Wars-prequely, you should know that all these science-fiction elements are not really all that important to the plot. The real movie begins when we meet a little girl named Lilo, who lives with her sister Nani in the Hawaiian island of Kauai, and is having a really tough time of dealing with her parent’s death. She is an offbeat and original mind, made all the more irritable by the fact that she doesn’t seem to fit in with the “normal” girls. It’s the meeting of this weird girl, and this outcast alien that makes Lilo & Stitch come alive.
The idea of connections between little children and their pets is one that Sanders would explore again in an even better movie, How to Train Your Dragon, but the real heart of Lilo & Stitch lies in “Ohana”, the Hawaiian word that according to the film “mean family”, and the concept that “family means nobody gets left behind, or forgotten”. It perfectly rounds up the concerns of Lilo to fit in, of Stitch as he finds out he may be more than just a destructive monster, and of Nani, as she tries best as she can to keep custody of Lilo. I’m not pretty sure of how to express this, but I found the way the main themes of Lilo & Stitch are presented to be absolutely beautiful. I’m somewhat of sucker for movies about wounded people coming together to form a family, but I also think this movie does an exceptional job of making its messages land without being too on-the-nose.
I think the way the movie achieves this is through the outstanding work done on the characters. The writing is pretty good, but then you have the vocal performances. Daveigh Chase, who you might remember as creepy Samara from The Ring does an exceptional job as Lilo, giving an incredibly realistic performance as an angry little girl. Sanders does the voice of Stitch himself, and he manages to be both very funny and very soulful by the movie’s end. The other outstanding work is done on the animation of the characters, Stitch is very playful and appropriately grotesque, but I personally love the way Lilo moves perfectly like a little girl even when she is dancing or swimming in the ocean.
I have been giving Sanders a lot of praise for his particular view in making the movie, but I must mention that he had a co-director in Dean DeBlois (who also worked with him in How to Train Your Dragon). As far as I know, DeBlois, might very well have the same sensibilities as Sanders, but the latter is widely regarded as the main author of the movie. As a matter of fact, after Lilo & Stitch, he was tapped by Disney to direct another movie, American Dog, which was also about a girl and her pet (a dog). A movie that when John Lasseter became head director of Disney, was taken away from Sanders and retitled Bolt. Bolt ended up being a pretty good movie, and Sanders went on to great things over at Dreamworks, but it still feels a little ungrateful of Disney to have unceremoniously taken the project from him.
The other big distinction of Lilo & Stitch, is that it became the only Disney movie released between 1999 (which is regarded as the end of the Disney Renaissance) and 2010 (which saw the release of Tangled and started a sort of new successful period for the studio) that not only made back its budget, but actually made a handsome profit. As such, it’s the only movie from this period that hasn’t been forgotten, and is still heavily marketed by the studio through merchandise and in the theme parks. It’s a faith that is very well deserved. Lilo & Stitch is, without a doubt, the very best movie Disney produced in the 2000s, and an incredibly sweet and effective one. It deserves to have a better reputation that it does right now, which is a syndrome that comes when you are a traditionally animated movie that came at the time of Pixar’s dominance, but something that can (and hopefully will) be changed with time.
Next Week: Treasure Planet, one of Disney’s most infamous failures.