Lilo and Stitch
Written and directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois
The best Disney movies have universal appeal. I would say that the best movies, in general, have universal appeal, but that’s not true. There Will Be Blood isn’t a classic because it appeals to kids as it does to adults. But Disney movies—really, family movies—need to be universal if they want to be classics. Sure, Cinderella may have talking mice and a nefarious cat, but it’s got enough appeal whether you’re 5, 50, 80, or somewhere in between. Some Disney movies have no appeal to anyone, but then there are the Disney movies that appeal only to children. While there’s nothing wrong with these movies—they are family movies, after all—movies like 2002’s Lilo and Stitch end up being unsuccessful to me, because you have to be a very specific age to like it. If you’re not the right age, you’re left in the cold.
The story of how two outsiders befriend each other and become more integrated with their familial community, Lilo and Stitch is cute, but lacks an internal logic. It’s one thing for a storyteller to avoid telling the audience about key elements of a story for a reason; it’s another for said storyteller to avoid telling the audience about those elements, just because they don’t care what the answers are. Writers/directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, who have since moved onto DreamWorks Animation and already helmed How to Train Your Dragon, don’t really care to explain why Stitch is thought of as such a monster on his planet, where he’s known as Experiment 626, an illegal genetic experiment gone wacky. He just is.
Obviously, watching any movie requires a dose of suspending one’s disbelief. You probably need at least twice the dosage when watching family movies, too. So a movie about a little Hawaiian girl who adopts a dog who’s actually an alien that’s known as a destructive force/genetic splice isn’t going to be wholly realistic. And I’m fine with that. But there are some questions this movie doesn’t feel the need to answer, if only to maintain a slight fairy-tale air to the proceedings. See, Stitch being a monster is hard to buy not because he’s a genetic experiment, but because he’s small. And the destruction he gets up to isn’t massive or epic, it’s all minor. Having Stitch in the house is like having a very bad dog in the house, not like having a giant catastrophe. Even if we’re meant to find the disconnect between the reputation Stitch has versus Stitch himself funny, it’s a joke that plays out almost immediately.
Another major problem is that, all things considered, no one seems to bat an eyelash at the literally alien presence in Kauai. When Stitch crash-lands on the island, and is quickly followed by two aliens—Dr. Jumba, his slightly mad creator, and Agent Pleakley—no one freaks out that two alien spacecraft have just landed on Earth. While I appreciate that the overall scope of this movie isn’t conducive to bringing in the government or alien enthusiasts, it just makes no sense for no one to care or even be aware of this intrusion. Also, one of the major reasons why no one realizes Stitch is an alien from the beginning is that all of the humans who come in contact with him assume he’s dog. Why? Well…I’m not sure. When Lilo, the lonely and frustrated human lead, and her frazzled sister, Nani, go to the animal shelter to help ease Lilo’s solitude, they see Stitch and the clerk freaks out only that some weird breed got into her shelter, not that Stitch is clearly not of this planet.
Frankly, I was underwhelmed by Lilo and Stitch. Though I didn’t go into the film assuming it would be a high point for Disney animation, I also knew that Stitch is a very, very popular character in the Disney canon over the past 10 years. He’s got his own ride, a TV series, and shows up quite often in Disney marketing. So why is the movie featuring him as the star so flat? The storytelling is the real problem, as the animation is cute and cleverly rendered, with watercolors bringing the bright, eye-popping island of Kauai to life. Sanders and DeBlois try very hard to make something of a Miyazaki film out of the story here but fail, as they never invest the fantastical part of this world with as much gravity as they do with the real world.
There are some praiseworthy elements of Lilo and Stitch, but they’re few and far between. The way the filmmakers and animators bring Kauai to life, as previously mentioned, is impressive and notable. The voice actors—no celebrities, as the biggest name actor is Ving Rhames—do a fine job, though none are particularly exceptional. I suppose part of my disappointment with this movie lies in the praise surrounding it, as opposed to the actual product. This happens all the time, of course; we hear some great (or terrible) word about a movie, TV show, book, or CD, and when we experience it for ourselves, we’re left asking the eternal question: “Is that all there is?” If this movie hadn’t been praised to the high heavens by some critics, especially Roger Ebert, I might have a lot less to say about this movie, and I might have forgotten it even quicker.
But make no mistake, Stitch is popular, and like another immensely ubiquitous character in the Disney theme parks, Mater from the Cars franchise, he’s a product from an overrated movie that’s lifted up mostly thanks to boffo merchandising sales. I don’t really think that Lilo and Stitch exists solely to push toys at the various Disney stores; as usual, let me clarify that I’m not naïve and realize that, yes, ALL Disney movies exist in some part to sell toys to children. But unlike the Cars movies, which do really seem like they exist for little boys to buy something at Toys ‘R Us, I just think this is a case of filmmakers trying to create a cool character. In some way, I’m reminded of the great episode of The Simpsons where, to combat low ratings and bored viewers, Krusty the Klown’s show introduces a new animated character, Poochie, who is a corporate distillation of what they perceive to be cool. Poochie, meet Stitch.
Stitch is cool because he’s a bad boy. He’s not like the other Disney protagonists, because he doesn’t want to fall in love, and even though he becomes friends with Lilo, it’s not like they’re going to be married anytime soon. Stitch is cool because he does things how he wants to. Stitch is cool because he’s an alien! All of this sounds like it came straight out of a pitch meeting; even though the production notes mention that Sanders came up with the character years before pitching it to then-honcho Michael Eisner, something smacks of creativity by committee. Stitch is nowhere near as grating or obnoxious as Poochie—being fair, I imagine Stitch is meant to be somewhat obnoxious—but he does seem forced and false. Lilo and Stitch has a fair share of entertaining moments, but they combine to make up what’s best described in a line from another episode of The Simpsons: “A whole lotta nothing.”
– Josh Spiegel