Disney Hall of Fame: Lilo & Stitch
"Ohana means family, family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten."
The Disney Renaissance of the late 80's to the mid 90's produced numerous classics that both Disney fans and non-fans came to love or at least respect. From The Little Mermaid that kicked off the streak, to 1994's The Lion King, these were Disney films in the classic vein, featuring characters that are recognizable to those who haven't even seen the films. Unfortunately it was a while before Disney was able to strike that perfect balance between unbridled fun and devastating heartbreak again. Leave it to a little blue alien to bring that all rushing back with 2002's Lilo & Stitch, a veritable masterpiece of artistry and tone.
Lilo & Stitch tells the oft-told tale of a kid and their dog, except in this case the dog is actually Experiment #626 AKA Stitch. Stitch, a galactic fugitive banished from his home world for being the result of illegal genetic testing, crash lands on the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i and becomes the new pet for protagonist Lilo. Whereas most Disney films start with a happy family that undergoes a tragedy in the first act, Lilo & Stitch bucks that trend by having the tragedy occur before the film begins. Lilo and her older sister Nani (voiced by Baberham Lincoln herself, Tia Carrere) have been orphaned and currently live together in their parents' home. Nani does her best to care for young Lilo but the eccentric younger sister does not make it easy. Her behavior eventually leads to social worker threatening to take Lilo away from Nani.
The family dynamic of Lilo & Stitch cannot be praised enough. As Stitch says during one of the many poignant scenes, "This is my family. I found it, all on my own. Is little, and broken, but still good." Even broken families, torn apart by death or tragedy can be good. Just because a family isn't the classic 'Dad, Mom, Child' archetype doesn't make it any less worthy, no matter what your Republican relatives tell you. Lilo and Nani are constantly butting heads in their coexistence, trying to care for each other even when there's almost no hope to be found. It's a unique and exceptional representation of siblings for a Disney film, and one they've rarely been able to top.
Certainly the most gorgeous picture released by Disney in the 00's, the art style is equally fantastical and realistic. Utilizing watercolor painted backgrounds for the first time since 1941's Dumbo, the paintings bring modern Hawaii to life. Much like Alexander Payne's The Descendants, Lilo & Stitch portrays a realistic Hawaii like few other films. These are not the resorts usually on display, but the middle class suburbs that most Hawaiians find themselves in everyday. Lilo and Nani's home looks particularly lived in, featuring stains on the walls and floors, a general disrepair that one would expect from a struggling young adult, trying to care for a child.
Another aspect that deserves a plethora of credit is the animator's choice to give the human characters realistic body types. There's no such thing as a perfect body and the animators know this, reflecting that in their character design. Nani, for example, is anything but a stereotypical Disney character. She has a down to earth, curvy look that's downright inspiring. Of course, the main draw here is Stitch, that adorable blue alien with the cutest voice in the Disney canon. He's a mess, but a lovable one. Once he gets into the groove of family life, he becomes one of the most relatable characters to ever grace the screen. He might not fit in, but he doesn't have to, and neither does the audience, a message kids should take to heart.
Like most Disney classics, Lilo & Stitch features memorable songs. However, unlike the musicals of the Disney Renaissance, Lilo & Stitch, for the most part, is a jukebox musical featuring the hits of Elvis Presley. Tied into the story by Lilo's obsession with The King, the songs come effortlessly to the proceedings, culminating in a delightful beach montage where Stitch puts on a performance of '(You're The) Devil in Disguise.' Calling back to the 1961 Elvis Presley vehicle Blue Hawaii is a smart choice on directors' Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders part, as it's one of Presley's more iconic pictures, and one of his most popular. One of the standout tracks from Blue Hawaii, 'Can't Help Falling In Love' is used to great effect here, and really lifts the production.
Speaking of the directors, it makes sense that they also worked on Mulan, another Disney film featuring a strong female lead, as Lilo is extremely headstrong, even when it's a detriment to her future with Nani. That the directing duo would also go on to be the minds behind the How to Train Your Dragon films is evident in the design of those films' Toothless the Dragon, as the similarities between Stitch and Toothless may cause the uninitiated to do a double take. These two have always been inventive but Lilo & Stitch might just be the highpoint of their careers.
This might not come as a big surprise at this point, but Lilo & Stitch is without a doubt my favorite Disney film. Although it was released in 2002 at the height of my "I'm too old for Disney" phase, when my fiancé first showed it to me about nine years ago I immediately fell in love. Not only is it an easily relatable story of sibling love and rivalry, it's also hilarious and has some amazing action set-pieces. The best being a spaceship chase through the mountains as Stitch avoids capture. There's just too much on display to admire and latch on to. Whether it be the rockin' tunes, gorgeous animation, believable characters, or Stitch himself, you'd be doing yourself a disservice by avoiding Lilo & Stitch. It truly is one of the best experiences Disney has to offer.