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Monday, July 9, 2012

Disneyear: Lilo & Stitch (2002)

Most people in general claim that the last great Disney film made before falling to a decline was The Lion King. While it is true that some of the films I reviewed during that period didn't catch people's eye like some of the Disney Renaissance hits, there came a late bloomer in 2002 that caught a ton of people by surprise: Lilo & Stitch. This was the first Disney film in years to achieve both blockbuster status and universal acclaim from critics and the general public. Even from some of the advertisements (including the poster on the right) that were out at the time, we knew we were in for something different from the usual Disney fare. Of course, most of the focus of these ads was a strange blue creature called "Stitch" that sort of resembled a koala with bat ears. What was clever about this though is that they saved the best aspect of the film for when you actually went in to see it. Trust me when I say I think it got a lot of people off guard. It just so happens that this is one of those films that does one element so well that it almost works against it. It immediately stands out from the other films I've reviewed and will review as the year progresses. But I think it's high-time we took a look at this so-called "black-sheep" film and examine Lilo & Stitch.

Somewhere in another planet, a trial is being held for Dr. Jumba Jookiba (David Ogden Stiers), a scientist accused of illegal genetic experimentation. It turns out he has created a new species of alien he names Experiment 626 (Chris Sanders, the director) that has a pension for mischief and destruction. The scientist is placed under arrest and the experiment is sent to exile on a desert asteroid but escapes in a space pod headed for the planet Earth. The grand councilwoman (Zoe Cadwell) enlists the help from an Earth expert named Pleakley (Kevin McDonald) and Jumba to get him back. Meanwhile on the Hawaiian island Kawaii, a little girl named Lilo (Daveigh Chase) has trouble fitting in because of her eccentric nature. On top of that, the only family she has is her sister Nani (Tia Carrere) who's constantly in-between jobs taking care of Lilo because their parents tragically passed away. She also has a social worker named Cobra Bubbles (Ving Rhames) constantly checking on her to see if she's a model guardian. After a rough night, Nani decides to get Lilo a pet to help her with her loneliness. That night, 626's pod lands on the island but is hit by a truck and taken to a dog pound. The next day, he decides to disguise himself as a dog and meets Lilo, who renames 626 "Stitch". With Jumba and Pleakley on his trail, Stitch uses Lilo as a bodyguard because Jumba can't shoot the child without causing panic. So time passes as the two share a bond and Lilo decides to try and tame Stitch through her favorite singer, Elvis Presley as an example of a model citizen. That unfortunately doesn't work because Stitch's destructive behavior gets in the way, also costing Nani job opportunities. Bubbles sees the tragedy in this and despite his sympathies, he says he needs to take Lilo away to a foster family. Stitch begins to see that he's doing more harm than good and decides to run away only to have Jumba and Pleakley on his trail and bumping into Lilo again. This time destroying the house. Just as Bubbles is about to take her away in spite of Nani's pleas, Lilo runs away too and finds out the truth about her pet. She and Stitch then get captured by another alien named Captain Gantu (Kevin Michael Richardson) out to redeem himself. Stitch escapes and rallies Nani, Jumba, and Pleakely to rescue her. They do of course and seeing Stitches rehabilitation and finding a new family on his own, the Grand Councilwoman decides to instead exile Stitch to live on Earth with his new family, now protected by intergalactic law. With Jumba and Pleakely exiled too, the new family rebuild the house and make a new, happier family. 

Where do I begin with this film? I guess I should start with the artwork. Once you get past the pretty pale opening scenes in outer space and enter the world that Lilo inhabits, visually this is beautiful stuff, employing the technique of watercolor backgrounds for the first time in decades. I also love the Hawaiian setting and the designs for these aliens. The film looks great and has wonderful animation to back it up.

My favorite part as a kid was all the science-fiction aspects of the movie. I loved the designs, I loved the action, I loved Stitch, it just was a cool movie growing up. Now that I'm older, I have a new love and appreciation for character development and Stitch's arch strikes me as a fascinating one. The rest is just okay. Here is a creature designed to pretty much be the ultimate monster, only he's the size of a Boston terrier. His prime instinct is to simply destroy anything he touches. As he becomes accustomed to living with Lilo, he starts to see her as a friend more than a bodyguard from Jumba. He also discovers that his destructive instincts cause more harm than good, especially for Lilo and Nani. He begins to see the tragedy of the situation too and tries to do whatever he can to find a new purpose in life. I especially love this scene where Jumba examines Stitch at night and has a talk with Pleakley about never giving him a higher purpose. It's pretty deep as far as kids films go.

The thing that stands out in my mind as an adult, though, is Lilo's situation. First, Lilo has to be one of the best kid characters ever put into film. For Disney to accomplish this is something remarkable. From the other movies I reviewed already, their kid characters have ranged from okay to incredibly bland and incredibly annoying. This one couldn't be any different: she's weird, she's emotional, she's violent, she's kooky, she's out of control. You know what? Those are kids! It just turns out she's even more bizarre than the others, which makes her even more interesting! Yes! Disney finally got this right! It gets better: she has to live with Nani because their parents passed away. But she's in-between jobs, has a handful looking after a kid that's already a handful, and she's her older sister! This is new territory for the both of them and it's hard to adjust to. On top of that, the social worker Cobra Bubbles has to keep a tight watch to see if Nani can be a good parent. At times, he sees the tragedy of the situation and he's not the bad guy, he's just doing his job. It just shows a tough slice of life. It doesn't need a bad guy or a greedy villain, it's just life. This was the first instance I saw that Disney really captured this and for me, brings their animated features to a whole new level.

If there's a downside though, it's that the scenes of the alien pursuers are for the most part almost a distraction. But even then the human element ups the involvement, with the added bonus of there being no real "bad guys" per se (like I said, it's nice to see a Disney movie where there isn't a traditional black-hatted villain, just people doing their jobs.) And I do kind of wish more time was spent with Nani and Lilo's situation. But it's not horrible, it just so happens that the film does one element too good. That's a lot better than having the film be mediocre all together. 

Hard to focus on a family breaking apart
when there's spaceship battles to be honest.
I liked Lilo & Stitch fine as a kid. But much like The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, this film is much, much better than I remember it being. It has some really edgy material about family issues while providing enough fun and charm to make it more family-friendly with that kick-ass Elvis Presley soundtrack. I think of this film as something similar to a Hayao Miyazaki film: we have strong female leads, lots of flying machines, beautiful artwork, and is based on an original idea. All I have left to say is that if you haven't seen it or have doubts, trust me. It's really, really good. Some of the sci-fi and slapstick is fun, but the elements with our three main characters are worth far more than the price of the DVD.

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