A genetically engineered mutant alien built to destroy everything it encounters is exiled to Earth where he befriends a little Hawaiian girl. Not the classic formula for a hit Disney animated feature. But Lilo & Stitch breaks out of the Disney mold to create a whole new breed of Disney cartoon.
Though last year’s The Emperor’s New Groove got away from the romantic comedy cartoons of Disney’s past, it lacked the appeal of those older movies and continued the Disney downfall that started with Pocahontas. Finally, with Lilo & Stitch, Disney has created a movie up to the standards of the Beauty and the Beast era, without the traditional love story theme.
Lilo and Stitch breaks the mold in many respects. Obviously, there’s Stitch. Stitch is a small, blue alien who is not exactly the classic Disney “leading man.” But more important are the human characters. Lilo and Nani have the same quirks that real people have, unlike the stock Disney characters of the past. Lilo loves Elvis and likes to take pictures of funny-looking tourists. Nani is a young woman trying to earn enough money to take care of her sister while battling with the desire to have a life of her own. Both of these characters have more depth than any previous Disney character.
The focus of Lilo & Stitch also breaks the mold. Throughout the film, different characters repeat the phrase, “‘Ohana means family. Family means no one gets left behind.” Most of the previous Disney movies focus on a love story. In Lilo and Stitch the love story is reduced to a minor interaction between Nan, and David, a surfer who repeatedly asks her out. Instead the focus is on the meaning of family. It emphasizes the fact that a family doesn’t have to consist of a mother, father and children, but instead that where there is love and trust, there is a family, no matter who the members are.
Lilo and Nani are thrown together in a makeshift family when their parents are killed in a car accident. The loss leaves Nani with a heap of unwanted responsibilities and Lilo with neither a mother nor a sister, but instead someone who isn’t quite cutting it as either. Obviously, this small family has very little money, and Lilo is teased by other girls her age for not having the right dolls or the right house. This leads to Lilo punching another girl in the face at her hula class. Her instructor has her sit outside and wait for Nani to pick her up, but Nani still isn’t there when the rest of the class gets out. When Lilo tries to play with the other girls, including the girl she punched, they make fun of her and she walks home by herself.
Lilo desperately needs a friend. Nani tries to be a friend to her, but she is too busy worrying about Mr. Bubbles, the social worker who is threatening to take Lilo away.
Stitch is literally the answer to Lilo’s prayers. He’s indestructable, so he can’t die, like her parents did, and he clings to her nearly all the time. Lilo doesn’t know that Stitch, with his destructive tendencies, is actually using her as a human shield to ward off the two aliens sent to recapture him, she just knows that she has a friend who wants to be around her all the time.
With all her faults, Lilo is the most believable character of any animated Disney movie to date. She is as endearing (and disastrous) as a real child. She does the same wacky things that a real child does and has the same sense of cluelessness. When she is late for her hula lesson because she had to feed her favorite fish a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, she fails to understand why her instructor would have difficulty believing the excuse. As he questions her further, she just responds with a blank stare, a look not unfamiliar to anyone who has ever sought an explanation for a young child’s behavior.
While Stitch and the rest of the alien cast are solid characters, they don’t have the kind of depth and appeal that Nani and Lilo do. It’s difficult to relate to a small, blue alien that smashes everything, but the friendship that forms between Lilo and Stitch is a strong one built out of need for a family.
One of the final frames of Lilo and Stitch is a cartoon snapshot of a family sitting down for a holiday dinner. The family consists of three Hawaiians, three aliens and an ex-CIA agent turned social worker. Sounds a little strange, but they are a family nonetheless.