Lilo & Stitch (2002)Rated PG for mild sci-fi action.
Starring the voices of Daveigh Chase, Tia Carrere, Jason Scott Lee, Chris Sanders.
LVJeff's Rating: 9/10
Photo ©Walt Disney. All rights reserved.
With Lilo & Stitch, Disney continues its recent trend of daring to release animated features quite different from its past successes. For most of the '90's, a Disney effort could be counted on to be a G-rated musical populated with a coming-of-age hero or heroine, an unscrupulous villain, and a vast array of comic-relief sidekicks. That couldn't safely be said about 2000's The Emperor's New Groove, an unapologetically zany comedy with four likeable major characters on both sides of good and evil. Nor could it fully describe 2001's Atlantis: The Lost Empire, a relatively mature and violent adventure devoid of musical numbers.
For Lilo & Stitch, which appears at first to be another routine exploration of finding acceptance, the difference is in the details which embellish an otherwise familiar tale. Most notable is its setting -- the story takes place in Hawaii and features characters that haven't felt this non-Caucasian since Mulan. The three major human players -- Lilo, Nani, and David (voiced by Daveigh Chase, Tia Carrere, and Jason Scott Lee, respectively) -- have large noses, dark skin, and refreshingly round-featured bodies. The story, about a lonely kid befriending an alien, could have taken place anywhere, and just a few years ago it probably would have been set blandly in white suburbia. Disney's colorful choice of locale here is decidedly welcome.
Reducing focus on the alien angle distinguishes the story from its obvious predecessors E.T. and The Iron Giant. Those movies spent considerable time having their protagonists find ways to hide their other-worldly friends. Here, everyone mistakes Stitch (voice of screenwriter Chris Sanders) for a very ugly dog, thus eliminating the need for him to hide in closets or stow away in garages. The tale can concentrate on Lilo's growing attachment to Stitch and Stitch's own discovery of an urge to care for another being. The movie downplays the alien angle even further when Stitch's extra-terrestrial pursuers comically don human disguises and fool the general populace, even though the creatures are still so obviously non-human.
By the time the feature reaches its frantic climax, the fact that there are a bunch of aliens in Hawaii seems insignificant compared to the goals of evoking laughter from the audience and re-defining the word "family" for this young millennium. In this regard, Disney pulls off its most wily maneuver yet -- using the tried-and-true formula of outcasts overcoming alienation to disintegrate the old-fashioned concept of the nuclear family. Nani plays older sister and acting mother to Lilo -- and watching them in their scenes together is one of the highlights of the film. It pulls no punches in portraying a wickedly hilarious screaming match between the two, then goes for the gut when showing their reconciliation afterward. Later on, Stitch, who is programmed to be destructive, learns what the sisters' meaning of "family" is, and it is not necessarily Dad-plus-Mom-plus-kids. This is emphasized further at the end of the movie when the family has grown from two to a motley six. Their group photos don't look like any family we've ever seen -- a bold and progressive statement.
Lilo and Stitch offers other elements to help it stand out. The mischievous youngsters are more realistic, the soundtrack boogies not to pop kings Phil Collins or Sting but to the hip-gyrating sounds of Elvis, and the humor, while effective and often wacky, is not sugar-coated -- Lilo's actions are often mean-spirited in that little-kid kind of way, and Stitch at one point is subdued by getting run over by a truck! Add eye-popping colors and several lazy tropical paradise sequences (like the surfing scenes during which I could swear I was smelling the sea air!), and Disney's 2002 entry is easily distinguishable from the rest of the company's line of animated theatrical features, but it shares with them the reliability to provide solid entertainment.
©Jeffrey Chen, Jun. 15, 2002