Lilo & Stitch is a heartwarmer. Stitch is an adorable, if extraordinarily quirky, character who manages to be both sidekick and hero. At the same time, it’s a movie that hardly knows what it’s supposed to be: part sci-fi epic about a misunderstood genetic experiment, and part family story about two sisters trying to make it work in trying times.
The combination works, though. Stitch is an adorable character that, like Wall-E, whom Pixar would later invent, manages to convey real and universal emotions without the use of language. Lilo is a child desperately trying to fit in when she’s just a little bit stranger than her friends: something almost everyone can relate to. Ultimately, Lilo & Stitch — despite space aliens, a trip across the galaxy and a genetic experiment falling on a Hawaiian village — becomes the perfectly normal story of two people desperate for love and acceptance who find each other and forge a perfect friendship.
The story finally falls back on Walt’s mantra: start with unforgettable characters. That the characters resulting from this experiment celebrate what’s different and unique in each person has some associations with previous Disney classics.
Everyone loves Dumbo, and Stitch is a very familiar character to those fans.
But at the same time, Disney knew they had an oddity on their hands with a space epic that mostly takes place in Hawaii among awkward characters. So they let the marketing for the film take that direction, as well. The original teaser ads for Lilo & Stitch began with classic characters from the Disney renaissance before Stitch invades the scenes and makes them incredibly awkward (and hilarious).
It’s the first time in its history that Disney has shown its ability to poke fun at itself. The marketing worked. Lilo & Stitch opened to an essential tie for first place at the box office with the Tom Cruise action flick Minority Report. On an $80-million budget, it nearly doubled that in box office receipts alone. The film was also a hit with critics, holding a significant 86 per cent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Film Threat said the movie is “easily one of the strangest products to ever emerge from the Disney animation pipeline,” which can only be taken as a compliment. The New York Times said: “Stitch, for his part, may be the purest embodiment of cartoon anarchy since Bart Simpson.” The review concludes:
“Instead of the usual barrage of cheeky pop-culture references, there is Lilo’s devotion to Elvis (whom she teaches Stitch to impersonate), and a quiet regard for details of character and setting. The film strives to be more soothing than thrilling, which is kind of thrilling in its own way.”
One of the interesting side notes of Lilo & Stitch is the sheer realism of the film, considering a significant portion of the plot relies on aliens.
For years, Disney has made haphazard attempts at creating feminist characters, but has usually fallen short on the messages girls and young women can actually use. The body types of the main characters (and even most of the secondary characters) in this film, however, ditch the typical hour-glass shape in favour of real-life body types that more audience members will recognize in themselves. The majority of the characters are women and the primary goals revolve around far more than finding a man and settling down.
Also realistic are the conflicts. The relationships between all the characters are complicated. Nani and Lilo are sisters in the best way: they yell at each other, hate each other, slam doors in each others face and love each other unconditionally, coming to the others aid when the time calls. Even the villains aren’t pure evil, but are instead victims of their own mistakes, misjudgements and misunderstandings.
The realism extends even to the setting. The Hawaii Visitor and Convention Bureau signed a $1.7-million deal with Disney to promote Hawaii in conjunction with the release of the film, and the result is a strikingly accurate portrayal of life on the islands. The production team spent weeks on location studying Hawaii while working on the film. As travel writer John Fischer argues:
“The Hawaii of Lilo & Stitch is not the Hawaii seen in most motion pictures. Lilo and her sister live in a small, rural town. Her sister is struggling to find and keep a job in Hawaii’s depressed economy, while still trying to satisfy the demands of the bureaucratic social worker. Many of the characters speak pidgin. The beach and ocean are means to escape after school, work or just a bad day. Tourists are a curiosity for Lilo, who takes their pictures and hangs the photographs on her bedroom wall. What you see in Lilo & Stitch is one of the most accurate portrayals of the real Hawaii.”
Lilo & Stitch was a home run in many ways for the studio. A maturing artistic and promotions team learned to poke fun at each other, represent their characters realistically and produce complicated relationships that were simple enough for children to understand. There’s little not to love, and Stitch remains one of the most adorable heroes the studio has produced.