Lilo & Stitch is a film I just keep returning to over the years. It is such a profoundly weird feature in the canon of Disney animation that I have no choice to be drawn to it. Where else do you see a not-musical packed to the gills with Elvis songs about an intergalactic weapon of mass destruction posing as a puppy dog adopted by a pair of sisters trying to stop child protective services from separating their remaining family? Nowhere else.
Here’s reality. Lilo & Stitch should not work at all as a film. It is, from many different levels of production, a film at odds with itself. Yet the story is so honest and the quality of animation so high that it overcomes a lot of inherent flaws in its concept.
Let’s start from a strictly visual perspective. The film, set in Hawaii, uses this beautiful pastel watercolor background for all of the scenery and props. It’s lovely. A whole film in that style could have been gorgeous.
Then you get to the characters. They are straight up Disney cartoons. You think of Disney animation–Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Alice in Wonderland–and Lilo, Nani, and even Stitch fit that image. They have instantly recognizable features and color schemes that don’t change even as wardrobe (and appendages) come and go throughout the story. The inking is harsh and the colors are supersaturated.
Lilo & Stitch wisely starts on an alien space station filled with characters and settings in those tones. The watercolor takes over when Stitch crashes into Earth. It’s an alien world for him, one the aliens themselves know nothing about, and needs to look different. That’s why it works. The native Hawaiian characters have softer tones for their ink than the aliens, but the line weight and characteristics are the same.
That whole space station thing could easily have sunk the film, too. I didn’t even remember that the first 10 minutes of the film take place at an intergalactic trial and jailing facility. That’s the start of a whole different story.
It’s not even immediately apparent what Stitch’s exile has to do with Nani fighting against Child Protective Services to keep custody of her younger sister Lilo. True, Stitch and Lilo have volatile personalities and are the same height, but those are superficial qualities temporarily bridging the gap between very different stories.
At its core, Lilo & Stitch turns into a heartfelt exploration of family. The new CPS agent does not believe that Nani can actually provide a real home for Lilo after Lilo tears up the house in a fit of rage and depression. The head of the intergalactic order believes that Stitch needs to be executed because he is incapable of showing empathy or reason when it comes to any other creature. These young characters are set to be removed from everything they’ve ever known because people who only met them for a brief moment have decided they’re beyond help in their current environments.
Yet Lilo was raised in a household with a very important motto. “Ohana means family. Family means no one gets left behind.” It is revealed later on that Lilo and Nani’s parents were killed in a car accident. The only ohana they have left are each other. That is until Nani agrees to adopt a dog for Lilo to give her something productive to do with her time.
The dog she chooses is Stitch, the little blue alien engineered by a mad scientist to cause chaos. The two become fast friends, but not in a way that actually helps either of their situations. In fact, Stitch only agrees to go with Lilo because hiding behind the Earth child is the only thing that stopped Stich from being executed on sight by alien agents tasked with his capture and/or execution.
But for Lilo, Stitch is instantly ohana. He is not allowed to be left behind. It doesn’t matter how much trouble he causes. She brought him into the family, and she is going to teach him to be a member of the family. There is no other course of action for her. It doesn’t matter who is bullying her for her family at school or what CPS is threatening to do; Lilo, Nani, and Stitch are staying together because family is family no matter what.
The story does go into some very heady and mature content for a Disney film, but it is not so serious as to be inaccessible for a younger audience. Lilo & Stitch is a very cute comedy film. The slapstick gags with Stitch and the other aliens land very well throughout. The action scenes are tense and funny, not scary and serious. Best of all, Lilo and Stitch’s relationship allows an even playing field for hijinks. Lilo is young and Stitch is inexperienced. They’re the perfect pair to cause mischief but not mayhem for most of the film.
When Lilo & Stitch does gun it in the last 20 minutes and let the concurrent stories go to a much darker place than you thought, the story has earned its self-indulgence. The writing is on the wall from the first few scenes of what has to happen, but you never believe that Disney will actually go there. Obviously, there will be a happily ever after, but it’s safe to say that Lilo & Stitch takes the strangest path to it in all of their animated films, Jim Crows and flying elephants included.