Lilo & Stitch
Likeable Disney Fare
Written and directed by Chris Sanders and Dean Deblois.
Voices by Chris Sanders, Daveigh Chase, Tia Carrere, Ving Rhames, David Ogden Stiers, Jason Scott Lee, and Zoe Caldwell.
There were many reasons to anticipate Disney’s latest animated release, Lilo and Stitch. After a long string of decidedly dull traditionally animated movies, Lilo and Stitch looked like something new and unique. The PG rating, a rarity among Disney animated movies, suggested the possibility the movie would feature more substance than so many recent ones relying solely on a formulaic plot, snappy one-liners, slapstick comedy, and pop culture allusions.
Despite some truly admirable intentions, however, Lilo and Stitch disappoints by only hinting at the movie it could have been. The movie opens with a few adroit minutes of exposition in the form of a sci-fi scene in which a rotund mad scientist (voiced by the versatile Disney veteran, David Ogden Stiers, with a Russian accent) is tried before the Grand Council, led by the Grand Councilwoman (authoritatively voiced by Zoe Caldwell). The scientist has broken laws governing genetic experimentation and his creation, “Experiment 626,” is a virtually indestructible, powerful, and highly intelligent six-legged and antennaed blue beast. Experiment 626 (given a memorably manic voice by Chris Sanders to match frenetic animation by Alex Kupershmidt) is programmed to destroy everything in sight, and the scientist is sentenced to imprisonment and the animal to termination. Experiment 626 escapes, and crash-lands on Earth, prompting the Grand Councilwoman to send the scientist and another alien to retrieve him.
The film moves quickly through the rest of the colorful opening sequence, which shows Lilo (pronounced “LEE-loh”), the movie’s young heroine, and her failed interactions with her peers and her older sister Nani. Lilo (voiced by the very talented, eleven-year-old Daveigh Chase) is alternately violent, sullen, purposefully uncooperative, and quietly sad and we soon learn that her behavior is due to difficulties dealing with the death of her parents and having to adjust to her older sister as guardian. The scene in which Lilo and Nani (sensitively voiced by Wayne’s World’s Tia Carrere) argue and eventually reconcile achieves a realism and emotional charge rarely seen in popular film or theater, let alone in a Disney movie.
The opening of the movie is certainly worth seeing, with its sci-fi scenes filled with smooth, fast action complemented by the emotion in the scenes with Lilo and Nani. Unfortunately the movie refuses to go far enough in the latter realm and instead almost immediately returns to more familiar ground. Nani is visited by a burly Man In Black-esque social worker (Ving Rhames) who tells her she has three days to prove that she is able to provide the care that Lilo requires.
Experiment 626 seeks refuge in a pound and is taken home by Lilo, who thinks he is merely a funny-looking dog and names him Stitch. The rest of the movie is set up for plot twists reminiscent of E.T. Lilo and Stitch become friends and Lilo shares her love for Elvis as Nani desperately attempts to prove herself, her efforts thwarted regularly by Stitch’s sadistic bend towards chaos and destruction and his attempts to elude his would-be captors.
Despite the glibness of the majority of the film, there are several key scenes which manage to give it some saving substance. Echoing A.I., Stitch learns new emotions from Lilo, including a regard for the movie’s buzzword, the Hawaiian value of “ohana,” that is, “family,” a word in the movie that is almost always accompanied by the warm Hallmark refrain, “Nobody gets left behind.” Stitch also comes across the story of “The Ugly Duckling,” which prompts him to wonder if there are more like him, and also begins to seek out more occupations than his penchant towards wanton destruction.
The emotional loneliness of Stitch and his eventual desperation to be part of a family, matched only by Lilo’s desperation for a companion, is never fully realized, which is a pity because of the bizarre wackiness of the flashy, madcap final sequence. These fantastic scenes, in which the familiar reality of the Hawaiians collides with the sci-fi world of the aliens, leave an odd aftertaste that would have been more effective if accompanied by a grittier realism in the other scenes.
Still, despite these shortcomings and the too-humanoid depiction of the aliens, a plethora of details make Lilo and Stitch a welcome change and a pleasant reminder that classic two-dimensional animation still has much to offer: Energetic and sometimes emotional scenes, a lack of formulaic “What I Want” and “I Love You So Much” songs, a more realistic visual depiction of females (although the solidness of their tree trunk-like legs goes a little too far in the other direction), an exploration of sibling relationships, and a worthwhile incorporation of Elvis tunes, not to mention a nicely put-together Flash website and an only peripheral inclusion of a romantic relationship, leave us only to wonder how much longer it will be before Disney ups the ante again.