Aliens and Family Values: Lilo and Stitch

Gantu: You’re vile. You’re foul. You’re flawed!

Stitch: Also cute and fluffy!

Before I get into this post, I should perhaps confess something. I have two plush Stitches; a Yoda Stitch complete with a stuffed green light saber; a Christmas Stitch; assorted Disney Trading Pins featuring Stitch, including, but not limited to, a Star Wars Emperor Palpatine Stitch and a pirate Stitch; and a Stitch backpack which I have taken to cons.

Which is to say, I may—may—have a slight bias in favor of destructive aliens reformed through the examples of Elvis and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling.

Just slight.

So now that we have that slightly embarrassing admission out of the way… let’s chat about Lilo & Stitch.

By the late 1990s, Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner had some concerns about the animation department. Oh, certainly, the department—now working out of three separate studios in California, Orlando, and Paris—was continuing to churn out groundbreaking work, developing new animation and computer assisted technologies, most recently with the Deep Canvas software. And if none of the later 1990s films had achieved the blockbuster success of The Lion King, they had all at least turned a profit.

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But comparatively lower profits and lower related merchandise sales made Eisner nervous, especially given the alarming number of high profile, prestige—read, expensive—animated films then in development, including Fantasia 2000, what would eventually become The Emperor’s New Groove, and Treasure Planet. Taking an example from Walt Disney’s brother Roy, Eisner ordered the animation studio to follow the example of Dumbo, the cheap and small film that had followed the lavish Pinocchio and Fantasia and kept the studio alive, announcing that the film that followed the prestige films would need to be like Dumbo: something very cheap and very small. While still being something that could sell toys.

As it happened, storyboard artist Chris Sanders had just the thing: a project based on a destructive little alien that he had been toying around with for years—first as a children’s book project, then as a short. The story could, he thought, be set in Kansas. After some more brainstorming and discussion, the story was shifted over to Hawai’i, a location Disney had yet to explore, and which offered beautiful scenery and the potential for underwater shots—something which, apart from a few scenes here and there, the studio had largely neglected since The Little Mermaid.

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To save money, the film’s background art was all done in watercolor, something the Disney studio had not done since Dumbo. Watercolor background art could be done swiftly, but also didn’t allow for as much detail—ideal for simpler, children-focused films like Dumbo and Lilo & Stitch, if not quite what Disney wanted for more ambitious pictures. Storyboards carefully limited the number of characters per frame for most scenes, also saving money, and limited—as much as possible in a film about an alien—the special effects shots. The hand drawn character cels were colored digitally, but the film largely avoided the use of the expensive—and by now, severely behind schedule for other films—Deep Canvas software, another cost-saving approach. And finally, executives sent the film to the smaller Florida studio, which had managed to bring Mulan in on budget.

Disney did splurge on one element: with the setting now moved to Hawai’i, Disney sent the directors, animators and background artists to Kauai to work on concept art. The trip also ended influencing the plot and theme of the film; after talking to various people living in Hawai’i, the artists decided to make Lilo & Stitch focus on the importance of the Hawai’ian concept of ‘ohana, or family. ‘Ohana, the film repeats over and over, means that no one gets left behind—or forgotten. It was a concept that became the heart of the film.

To illustrate that concept, the film needed a plot and a story. In the end, as the title suggests, Lilo & Stitch ended up telling two: that of a troubled little girl called Lilo, who has recently lost her parents and desperately needs a friend, and a marvelously destructive little alien called Stitch, reformed by the power of love and the sterling example of model citizen Elvis Presley.

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The film starts with Stitch’s story, as the little alien escapes from galactic prison and exile through a nice bit of trickery, before randomly setting the hyperdrive, shooting himself off to what initially seems to be his inevitable doom in the Pacific Ocean, which turns out to be a considerably less doom-filled landing on the island of Kauai in Hawai’i. Everyone sighs and gets ready to blast the planet Earth out of existence, only, it turns out they can’t, because they have to protect Earth’s mosquitoes. An understandably infuriated Grand Councilwoman sends off a series of missions to bring in the adorable bundle of destruction without harming any mosquitoes, led by Stitch’s creator Jumba, accompanied by bureaucrat Agent Pleakley, and later by completely fed-up military leader Captain Gantu.

This story leads to multiple hijinks, especially after Stitch gets the bright idea to use a small child as a human shield against Jumba (the more exasperated Gantu doesn’t care if Stitch has a human shield or not) and after the human shield—Lilo—is tasked with turning Stitch into a model citizen, and decides that Stitch can best model himself after model citizen Elvis. Most of you have probably seen the gifs. It all culminates in a major space chase over the Hawai’ian islands (hastily redone after 9-11 to take place over unpopulated areas) and some major hugs all around and, if we are being completely honest, maybe a sniffle or two from your blogger. Every time.

That story is so over the top and spectacular that it can be easy to miss the other, arguably better story: that of Lilo and her troubled relationship with her older sister and guardian Nani. As the movie later reveals, the two lost their parents rather recently in a car crash, leaving Lilo in Nani’s care. It’s something Nani is almost completely unprepared for.

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Nani’s job as a waitress doesn’t pay enough for new toys or childcare. When she can, she takes Lilo (and Stitch) with her to work, tucking them away in a back table. That goes badly—though to be fair, that’s not entirely the fault of Lilo, Stitch, or Nani. When she can’t, Nani ends up leaving Lilo alone, or not picking her up from dance classes in time, something social worker Mr. Cobra Bubbles strongly disapproves of. They apparently don’t have a car, though they live within walking distance of various tourist resorts and shops; in one scene, Nani has to jog to an interview. She’s so stressed that she occasionally forgets to turn the stove off, and if she later decides to go with pizza instead of a home cooked meal—well, I think we can all understand that.

(Most of us, at least. Stitch, rather pointedly, ends up taking over the family cooking.)

That’s just the financial and pragmatic side. Emotionally, Nani’s initial infuriated interactions with her younger sister include screams, threats and a shouted observation that a rabbit would be easier and quieter to take care of, a statement that, however true, sends poor little Lilo into tears. The two sisters come very close to striking each other physically more than once, and their encounters leave them both angry and depressed.

To be fair to Nani, Lilo is the sort of little sister who would be infuriating. Lilo often flat out refuses to obey orders like “Stay at the dance school until I come to pick you up,” and “Don’t nail the front door shut.” And this is all before we get into Lilo’s choice of a dog. But for all that, Nani recognizes that her sister is lonely and desperately missing their parents (Lilo keeps a picture of the entire family beneath her pillow) and having difficulty making friends—when she’s not trying to prevent more rain-slicked car accidents by feeding peanut sandwiches to tuna fish possibly able to control the weather. Her young peers have reason to be unfriendly: Lilo feeds peanut butter sandwiches to tuna fish in a desperate hope of controlling the weather, has a rather terrifying handmade doll, and attacks and bites her peers. Nani assures Lilo that the problem is only that the kids don’t know what to say. Which is probably true, but also a beautiful moment that both focuses on the potential loneliness of grieving, and shows that for all her anger at other times, Nani gets her sister.

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And for all of her inexperience, Nani has a few other parenting triumphs. She lets Lilo choose her own dog, and pay for the dog (with $2 dollars borrowed from Nani) since Lilo desperately wants to pay for the dog. She treks from job interview to job interview to keep the family. She convinces Stitch to convince Jumba and Pleakley to help rescue Lilo.

And she gives Lilo this wonderful moment:

Lilo: Did you lose your job because of Stitch and me?

Nani: Nah. The manager’s a vampire. He wanted me to join his legion of the undead.

Lilo: I KNEW IT.

Ok, so, technically, this could be classified as a lie, but it’s exactly what the guilty Lilo needs to hear just then.

And technically, sure, Lilo and Nani might be just a bit broken, both as a relationship and as a family. But as Stitch says later, it’s “still good.”

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Nani also has a side romance with David, a surfer and firedancer, which is not particularly important to the plot or the film, but which I mention because it’s one of the healthiest and most supportive romances in any Disney animated film. Nani likes David, a lot, as we learn thanks to Lilo, who has not hesitated to read her sister’s diary—did I mention that Lilo is the sort of little sister who would be infuriating? But Nani also thinks that she really can’t date anyone just now. David doesn’t press, but when he later sees a dejected Lilo and Nani, he spends an entire day cheering them up—and later gets a moment to shine when he dives down into the ocean to save Lilo and Stitch from Jumba. I don’t think it’s an accident that this is a transformative moment for Stitch, who sees the other three having fun, and wants to join in, and it’s definitely not an accident that David later finds a job for Nani—the job she desperately needs to keep her family together.

He also reacts fairly calmly to the arrival of aliens.

Lilo & Stitch’s other example of triumphant storytelling? Nearly every character in it, right down to the briefly seen lifeguards, is sympathetic, with clearly understandable motives. I said nearly, because the film never quite clarifies exactly why Jumba thought it was a great idea to create a nearly indestructible little alien capable of destroying nearly everything, other than “evil scientist,” which isn’t a great motive, really, when you think about it. But otherwise, it’s more than obvious why Gantu is irritated, why Pleakley is caught between constant panic and having a fabulous time, why Cobra Bubbles thinks that foster care is the better option, why Nani can’t keep her temper, why no one, however sympathetic, will hire Nani, why the hula teacher doesn’t know what to say, why Lilo’s peers avoid her, and, yes, why Lilo and Stitch become friends.

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Oh, sure, if we’re going to get technical about it, plot holes abound, from the probably unavoidable (despite having a language of their own, all of the aliens speak perfect English to avoid the need for subtitles), to the mildly inexplicable (since Jumba doesn’t know anything about Earth, how exactly is he immediately able to identify Lilo as a little girl?) to the rather massive script errors (the Grand Councilwoman goes from never having heard of Earth in early scenes to remembering visiting the planet back in the 1970s in later scenes), to the merely questionable (would anyone over the age of six really identify the six-legged Stitch as a dog, much less take him to the pound, much less leave him in a pound when he’s clearly terrifying every other dog in the place?)

I also can’t figure out how, exactly, Stitch manages to get out of the little cylinder at the end of the film without creating an opening large enough for Lilo to get out too, or, for that matter, why that cylinder doesn’t have some sort of alarm system to let the spaceship’s operators know that a dangerous criminal is escaping—especially given that this is after Stitch already successfully escaped prison and roamed free for a couple days. I am questioning your competence, Galactic Council, is what I’m saying. Or why aliens Stitch and Jumba are able to reference Christmas and Hanukkah barely two days after arriving on Earth. (I checked; not a single Christmas tree appears in the film, so no, they didn’t pick this up from the resort hotels.) Or how, exactly, a CIA agent formerly assigned to work with aliens ended up working as a social worker in Kauai. Also—although I realize that this particular plot hole is the result of frantic, last minute rewrites—I’m not convinced that a fuel truck could be driven into lava by anyone, even Stitch. And I’m seriously questioning whether, even in the relatively laid-back Hawai’i portrayed in this film, people would really fail to notice an alien spaceship battle zooming right above them. I mean, the battle even destroys an ice cream cone and a fuel truck. PEOPLE WOULD NOTICE THIS SORT OF THING.

But all of these are meaningless quibbles because Stitch is awesome. The end.

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Audiences agreed with me. Lilo & Stitch was one of only three Disney films released between the end of the Disney Renaissance and the beginning of the John Lasseter/Disney Revival period (that is, between the 1999 Tarzan and the 2009 The Princess and the Frog) to turn a profit, bringing in a solid box office take of $273.1 million on an $80 million budget—far less, granted, than either the glory days of The Lion King or the previous year’s Pixar release, Monsters, Inc., but still a rare bright spot for the Disney Animation Studio, and brighter than the other two profitable films, Dinosaur and Brother Bear.

The box office take was enough to let the studio greenlight a still rare three full length film sequels as of this writing: Stitch! The Movie (2003), Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch (2005), and Leroy & Stitch (2006). The film also spawned two television series: Lilo & Stitch: The Series, which ran from 2003-2006 on the Disney Channel, and Stitch! an anime spinoff created and initially aired in Japan. A few episodes of the English dub for Stitch! were briefly available on one of the Disney channels, and the Spanish dub available on the Latin America Disney channel.

Even more successful was the merchandising. Stitch toys flew off shelves, and are still widely available today, along with Stitch clothing, keychains, fine art, cell phone covers, mugs and Disney Trading Pins. Stitch has been incorporated into multiple Star Wars products, both as the Emperor Palpatine and as Yoda, and makes regular appearances at the Disney parks. Stitch also features in multiple video games in English and Spanish, and in Kingdom Hearts and Disney: Infinity. Most of the Disney theme parks feature at least one Stitch attraction, and Stitch makes several appearances on Disney Cruise Line vessels.

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It was a much needed success for the Disney Animation department, later used to help justify keeping the studio alive even after Disney purchased the more successful Pixar a few years later. It was also a success for writer/director Chris Sanders, who continued to voice the Stitch character at Disney, even after heading over to Dreamworks, where he created How to Train Your Dragon.

That success, alas, was completely wiped out by the studio’s next release, the financial disaster Treasure Planet. Struggling, Disney turned its attention to the Florida animation studio again.

Brother Bear, coming up next.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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