Lilo & Stitch
Screenplay : Dean Deblois & Chris Sanders
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2002
Disney's advertising campaign for its new animated sci-fi comedy Lilo & Stitch is desperate to convince us that the movie is a change from the traditional Disney formula. Whether it be the humorous trailer in which a Lion King-esque "Circle of Life" sequence falls apart when it is discovered that it is the alien Stitch being held aloft, rather than Simba, or the one-sheet posters that prominently feature Stitch in the center with a host of familiar Disney animated characters cowering at the margins, Disney is jumping up and down yelling, "It's different! It's edgy! It's kinda rude! It's not cute and cuddly!"
Au contraire, Disney, au contraire. While Lilo & Stitch departs from the Disney formula in certain respects, it otherwise fits in just right, with its orphaned protagonists, comical sidekick characters, and ultimately uplifting message about the importance of family and belonging (granted, the characters never break out into song, but that element of the Disney formula has been increasingly discarded for several years now). Stitch may look like a blue koala bear gone bad with a Pac-Man mouth full of gremlin teeth, but the whole purpose of the movie is to show how he's actually a big softie after all, despite being a genetically programmed alien hellbent on destroying anything that comes near him.
The movie opens with Stitch's creator, Jumba (David Ogden Stiers), a deranged alien scientist with four eyes and a Russian accent, on trial for having broken intergalactic laws by creating Stitch (who is there referred to as Experiment 626). Stitch is deemed too dangerous and is banished, but he manages to grab hold of a spaceship and crashland on Earth. He happens to crash in the middle of Hawaii, where he quickly latches onto a troubled little girl named Lilo (Daveigh Chase), whose parents have recently died and now lives with her well-meaning, but not-entirely-capable-of-handling-all-this sister, Nani (Tia Carrere).
Stitch hangs onto Lilo not because he likes her at first, but because she makes a convenient shield. Jumba, who has been sent to Earth to retrieve him, cannot harm a human in the process, so as long as Lilo is the way, Stitch is safe. To make sure no humans are harmed, a one-eyed fussbudget named Pleakley (Kevin McDonald) comes along, lecturing Jumba at every turn how humans can't be killed because they are part of the mosquito food chain, and mosquitoes are an endangered species (yes, that doesn't make sense, but there is a punchline at the end of the movie to explain it).
Despite Stitch's less-than-noble reasons for hanging out with Lilo, they soon become friends due to their mutual feelings of isolation in the world. Lilo feels lost because her parents are gone, and Stitch feels lost because ... well ... being a genetically generated one-of-a-kind, he doesn't have any parents. The movie's theme is stated several times in the traditional Hawaiian notion of ohana, which means family. Lilo and Stitch also both tend to lash out violently as a way to express their loneliness, and there are several poignant moments in which we see Lilo doing "bad" things that are easily understandable given her situation in life. Her and Nani's life is also being further complicated by the watchful eye of a social worker, who is an animated dead-ringer for Pulp Fiction's Marsellus Wallace (little surprise that he's voiced by the man himself, Ving Rhames).
In a marketplace that is more and more dominated by computer animation, Lilo & Stitch is a nice break, showing why traditional hand-drawn animation still has a place. The movie's slightly offbeat tone and comic rhythms work well with the simple and bright animation techniques. First-time codirectors/cowriters Dean Deblois and Chris Sanders tell their story well without too much superfluous style or "hey-look-at-this" technique, and they make good use of Elvis songs that I thought had long since worn out any cinematic usefulness. Granted, Lilo & Stitch sticks pretty closely to the Disney formula, but it diverts just enough to hold attention and get a few unexpected laughs before it brings home the message of ohana and sends you on your way.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick