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Celebrating 20 Years of 'Ohana with Disney's 'Lilo & Stitch'

By James Field | Film | June 17, 2022 |

By James Field | Film | June 17, 2022 |


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“This is my family. I found it, all on my own. It’s little and broken, but still good. Yeah. Still good.”

Twenty years and at least a dozen viewings later, it still gets me every time. Lilo & Stitch, one of Disney’s last hand-drawn movies and their version of a low-budget feature at $80 million, is in some ways unique among Disney’s animated library. First released in 2002 in a post-9/11 America that required a few hasty changes to the script, Lilo & Stitch spawned three sequels, a Disney Channel animated series, and introduced a generation of kids to the power of Elvis Presley.

Lilo & Stitch tells the story of a 6-year-old girl in the care of her older sister, Nani (Hawaiian native Tia Carrere). Recently orphaned after a car crash took their parents, the two struggle to make ends meet on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Lilo’s (Daveigh Chase) trauma and resulting behavior make it impossible for Nani to hold down a job and they’re on the verge of losing their home. Lilo is a friendless, lonely child, and the way she acts out has her social worker, Cobra Bubbles (a perfectly cast Ving Rhames) on the verge of removing her from Nani’s care. Nani hopes a new pet might ease Lilo’s angst, and a visit to the local dog pound introduces the pair to Stitch, aka Experiment 626. This intelligent, invulnerable, super-strong agent of chaos was a creation of Dr. Jumba Jookiba (David Ogden Stiers) and faces euthanasia as an illegal genetic creation. He escapes his prison cell, steals a spaceship (the red one, obviously), and crashes on Kauai. The tiny but dense Stitch sinks like a stone in water and so is trapped, unable to fulfill his intended purpose of mass destruction on a small island with no major cities. Lilo and Stitch learn to be patient with one another and gradually recover from their ordeals while Stitch is hunted by Jumba and alien mosquito-devotee Pleakley (Kevin McDonald).

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Unlike most of Disney’s pre-Moana features, the studio made an effort to cast at least some of the major roles with people of Hawaiian descent — Jason Scott Lee, who plays David, Nani’s friend and love interest, is also Hawaiian — and worked with Hawaiian locals to get the vocal rhythms and slang down. Disney storyboard artist Chris Sanders had created the character of Stitch for a children’s book that never got off the ground, and when approached by Disney CEO Michael Eisner to pitch an idea for a smaller budget film, adapted his story of an alien crash-landing in Kansas to the islands. Lilo & Stitch is one of the few animated movies of the modern era to use handpainted, watercolor backgrounds way to give the movie a storybook feel appropriate to the age of the characters.

Lilo’s age helps draw viewers in. At 6, lashing out is more believable and easier to empathize with — who hasn’t wanted to bite a classmate or coworker at least once? She’s intelligent and creative without falling into the trap of being too precocious. Like every lonely child, she creates intricate fantasies to pass the time, such as Pudge the fish controlling the weather, and the sandwiches she makes to appease him. She’s destructive when bored or depressed but generally kindhearted, with a love of people and the imperfect human form. She’s just a kid, and it’s just what the movie needs.

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By comparison, Stitch is an engine of destruction. He’s adopted as a dog and is so ugly he’s cute, like a pug puppy. His puppy-like behavior at the beginning is exacerbated by his thumbs and intelligence. When Lilo first tries to channel his tendencies into something more constructive, Stitch builds a model of Tokyo out of materials in Lilo’s room, only to rampage through it like Godzilla on a bender. He intimidates pets, steals food, bullies Lilo, and generally fulfills his duties as an agent of chaos as best he can given the lack of appropriate targets. But there is more to him, as he reluctantly comes to recognize. Though Jumba and Pleakley’s attempts to capture him threaten his chances for a happy life, it’s the more aggressive attacks by Captain Gantu, enforcer for the Galactic Federation, that ultimately put Lilo and her family in the most danger.

The tight bonds between Nani and Lilo weave their way through the entire movie and are the foundation that supports Stitch’s rehabilitation. Nani’s frayed temper and anxiety are relatable to everyone who’s struggled to hold down work and take care of a child. She’s doing her best even if those efforts aren’t recognized by Agent Bubbles and the faceless government agency he represents, which has a more concrete idea of what stability for Lilo looks like. Nani is frustrated and exhausted and it puts additional strain on the relationship. Lilo wants her sister to be her sister, not fully recognizing at her young age how the relationship must change if the pair are to remain together.

And there’s ‘Ohana, the Hawaiian concept of an extended family that stretches through the community. For the Pelekai family, that means no one gets left behind or forgotten. For Stitch, a creature who has only ever been alone, it’s a concept as alien as the people around him. But despite lashing out at the people around him because he finds it’s something he desperately wants.

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Of course, everything works out in the end, at least after some last-minute reshoots. The original ending, animated before September 11, 2001, involved Stitch stealing a 747 and flying it through the streets of Honolulu, occasionally scraping across buildings on his way. Needless to say, this ending wouldn’t have fared well with audiences in a post-911 atmosphere and was quickly redesigned to instead involve a spaceship in a jungle environment. The original ending can still be found, and it’s easy to understand why they changed it.

Ultimately, Lilo & Stitch was a hit. It was the second-biggest earner in 2002, with Ice Age coming in first. Several direct-to-video sequels and an animated series later, Lilo & Stitch remains a family favorite for its humor and heart. It celebrates the fact that we don’t have to be blood to be family. Because Disney considers no cash cow truly milked until it’s been sucked dry, there’s been talk of a live-action remake with John M. Chu directing. That fell through, and I find myself siding with the original film’s director, Dean DeBloise, when he called a live-action version “kind of crazy.” Like all Lilo’s photographic subjects, the original is beautiful and requires no modern movie magic to make it better. You can’t improve on the original.

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