At the beginning of the 2000’s, Disney has rolled out a unique marketing campaign to advertise his new movie. In short trailers, classic scenes from beloved Disney movies like Aladdin, The little Mermaidand The Lion King played normally until a small blue alien walks into the shots uninvited, disrupting the footage.
I was about eight at the time – in other words, the target audience for these ads – and they worked. The The beauty and the Beast-the themed trailer was included as a preview on one of my well-worn VHS tapes. In this one, the theme from the movie plays out as Beauty and the Beast dance around the famous ballroom. But this time, there’s a little blue monster crawling on the ceiling. He slides towards the giant chandelier, causing it to collapse and almost hit the protagonists. Belle puffs “Get Your Own Movie” and AC/DC’s “Back in Black” begins to play. I learned very little about Lilo & Stitch except that I needed to see it.
Turning 20 this month, Disney’s 42nd animated feature remains as joyous and chaotic as it was in 2002. Set in both space and Hawaii, the film follows the experience alien scientist 626, nicknamed Stitch, after he crash-landed on Earth and struck up an unlikely friendship with a girl named Lilo. Both are outcasts, Stitch an alien fugitive programmed to destroy everything in his path, Lilo a sad and parentless little girl who is at risk of being taken from her older sister and guardian, Nani, by child protection services. .
On paper, it looks like this movie should absolutely not work. Co-writers and directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (who also plays Stitch) throw it all and more at the audience: aliens, a heavy Elvis soundtrack, airborne plasma cannon battles, a hulking FBI agent turned CPS officer named M. Bubbles. The film also retains a strong sense of place, with Hawaiian language, music, and dance integral to Lilo & Stitchthe plot. The film was extensively researched and many of the voice actors in the film were Hawaiian and had the freedom to change parts of the script to better reflect colloquialisms.
The film’s art style also marks a departure from the typical Disney look. The backgrounds are watercolor and the character designs are rounded and soft. Nani’s strong legs and pear-shaped figure are a refreshing change from the conventional Disney princess body.
Thematically, Lilo & Stitch is also more complex than many of its Disney contemporaries. The depiction of Nani’s battle with child protective services, for example, is neither glamorous nor sugarcoated. The audience sees the dishes piled up in his sink. We watch Nani struggle to hold down a job, keep busy and sweet with her sometimes bratty sister, and take time for herself. Lilo & Stitch does a good job of exploring how everyone in America is an accident out of poverty and how “picking up by your boots” isn’t always enough.
The film further criticizes authority figures, celebrates unconventional family structures, and examines the tourism industry on the Hawaiian Islands. Did I mention his irreverent sense of humor? When no one can accuse Lilo & Stitch to be boring, this film has a lot pass. Yet it combines perfectly.
While many Disney films released before and after the Disney revival (circa 1989-1999) were marred by difficult circumstances and strained behind-the-scenes relationships, the opposite was true here, which no doubt contributed to the film’s positive reception. As described in the documentary The Story Room: The Creation of Lilo and Stitch, Sanders was approached by the studio to create a low-budget film that was bursting with creativity, a strategy Disney had used to great effect. Dumbo.
In response, Sanders recycled a failed children’s book idea, which he pitched to Thomas Schumacher, then president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, at a karaoke bar. Sanders quickly brought in DeBlois, whom he had met while working on Mulane, to co-lead. But as DeBlois describes in the documentary, he had one stipulation: As story lead on Mulane, he had been “miserable” due to long hours and a longer than expected schedule. With Lilo & Stitch, he insisted that the work be done only during the regular work week. “We’re going to have lives,” DeBlois said. “None of us are going to lose our health in the process.”
The policy has been maintained, and therefore work on Lilo & Stitch was fun. In his spare time, Sanders learned to ride a longboard. The crew kayaked together on weekends. most Relaxed and collegial atmosphere and the lack of oversight from Disney executives created an environment conducive to creativity. With greater freedom and better working conditions, Sanders and DeBlois penned one of Disney’s weirdest and boldest films, and one of its few hits in its stumbling post-Renaissance era.
Sanders and DeBlois’ “everything but the kitchen sink” strategy worked. The movie literally has it all, but most importantly, it has heart. Beneath its absurdity, Lilo & Stitch captures what it feels like to yearn to belong and struggle to be understood. 20 years later, it’s still one of the most creative and inclusive stories audiences have seen from Disney this millennium.