In the early 00s Disney seemed to be going through an iconoclastic period where they avoided the genres and styles that had, time and time again, made them so beloved. This meant having a zanier sense of humour, genre settings (sci-fi was a particular preoccupation) and rejecting princess stories, big musical numbers and conventional romances. The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Lilo and Stitch, Treasure Planet, Chicken Little, Meet The Robinsons and Bolt all fit in this category before The Princess and the Frog proved a magnificent return to form (who knows what Brother Bear and Home on the Range are…). Lilo and Stitch is one of the least Disney films of this period, but is also the most interesting of the bunch. Not everything works, but it is so low-key and unassuming, whilst still having ideas and a sense of humour, that it feels wholly unique in the canon. It’s The Descendants meets Men In Black in animated form. Sort of. Here are some of the aspects that, taken together, make the film one of a kind in the canon.
Lilo is a fascinating central character, younger than many Disney heroines and a whole lot more real than most of them, too. She’s a child, and directors Dean De Blois and Chris Sanders (the geniuses behind How To Train Your Dragon) don’t shy away from making her as annoying and self centred as children can be. She argues with her sister and fails to see how much she is sacrificing for her. She is petulant, stubborn and a little bit odd. But she is also immensely charming, curious and resourceful. Like many children she has her own weird quirks and obsessions, including a penchant for Elvis and taking photos of overweight tourists. This combination of immaturity and childish wonder make her one of the most realistic main characters Disney have created. Humans are flawed but essentially good, and Lilo and Stitch is the first time that Disney has caught up with this. The closest comparison is probably Alice, 29 films ago.
By making the central character significantly younger than most of their teenagers, Disney are able to ignore a need for romances in the centre of the film. There is a little bit of a subplot between her sister and a local surfing hunk, but even that is underplayed in favour of the sibling relationship. This film could easily be described as a character drama, as the sci-fi is only there to compliment the main story, which is the developing relationship between Lilo and her sister.
While the 90s had seen a greater variety of settings round the world (Arabia, the Serengheti, China), all of those choices were informed by the narrative – for instance, Mulan can only happen in China. Lilo and Stitch could happen just about anywhere in the world, apart from the need for somewhere with no large cities, which begs the question as to why they chose Hawaii. My best guess is that the atmosphere and aesthetic of Hawaii is just an interesting one to explore. The azure, wave lined coasts and verdant mountains of the volcanic islands are gorgeously, but unshowily rendered, while the culture of the state lends the film an irrepressibly laid back vibe that again feels far more like an American indie than more plot heavy films from the studio. The tone and pace feels a world away from Atlantis or Treasure Planet, which come either side of this film.
There’s no need for it particularly, but it sounds nice and makes a change from 00s rock ballads.
Stitch is a kind of gross, destructive monster that flies in the face of ‘appeal,’ one of the core principles of character animation. But somehow, like Toothless in How To Train Your Dragon, something potentially hideous becomes immensely charming. He represents an intergalactic group of aliens of all different shapes and sizes, displaying a variety in design that is evidence of lots of time and effort in the worldbuilding. It shows the kind of inventiveness that marks this period in the studio’s history – design is the hallmark of even the dreariest of films from the 00s. Combined with the investment in character and the impressive animation, it makes Lilo and Stitch one of the best films from this era.
Late Title Card
This is just something that interests me and probably no one else, but there is quite a lengthy bit of set up before Lilo is even introduced, and the title doesn’t roll until 10 minutes into the film. Just another thing that is a little bit different.