I continued my Disney exploration with this cute and quirky 2002 movie about a little Hawaiian girl who unknowingly adopts an alien creature from outer space. One of our heroes is a strange, angry, destructive force, another is shaped like a cross between a koala and an insect.
In the sci-fi-ish opening, the alien’s creator Dr. Jumba is put on trial by the Galactic Federation for illegal genetic experiments, and his wicked creation is sentenced to exile, but instead he escapes and crashes on the Hawaiian island of Kauaʻi. There he’s adopted as a pet by Lilo, a mischievous orphan who lives with her exasperated older sister Nani, and is named Stitch. To avoid the not-so-capable couple of aliens sent to capture him, Stitch sticks with Lilo, and in the process learns the joys of Elvis’ music and surfing, and the values of ʻohana, the Hawaiian concept of family, in a heart-warming yet not sickly sweet fashion.
I thought there was something very different about the look of this film, which was explained when I found out that it was the first animated Disney movie in decades to use watercolour-painted backgrounds. It adds a lot to the charming low-key vibe of what is definitely not a typical Disney film. The character design is a deviation from the house style, and despite the wacky sci-fi elements and humour, it seems to be more grounded in the real world, particularly when it comes to the portrayal of the sisters and their imperfect but fiercely loving relationship.
Lilo feels like a very real loner kid, a bit weird and random, a bit of a brat, while Nani struggles with her new dual role of being both a sister and a parent figure, and just keeping shit together on a day-to-day basis. She doesn’t even have time to consider dating David, an affable young local dude who’s clearly keen. There’s also a disapproving social worker named Cobra Bubbles hanging around, who threatens to split up the family and take Lilo away unless Nani shows signs of improvement (there’s a hilarious explanation late in the film why this social worker looks more like a bodyguard for the mafia). The two sisters get into a full-on screaming match in the first half an hour. Good, relatable stuff. There’s also a sense of realism to the small island setting: the movie highlights its dependence on tourism and the traditional Hawaiian kitsch, and that things can get hard for the locals during off-season.
Stitch is a fun anarchic destructive critter who seems to have dropped into the Disney universe from a Looney Toons show, but who can also be oh-so-cute in his more vulnerable moments. The movie is also an aberration for not having a clear-cut villain: even the more antagonistic characters have understandable motivations and not all of them remain hostile. Lilo & Stitch doesn’t have the epic sweep of the better-known classic Disney movies, but it’s a delightful modest little gem.