‘Lilo & Stitch’ deserves better.
Lilo & Stitch is the “Barb” of Disney movies. Yes, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet exist. However, neither of those films have seen as much success and then sunk back into Disney-relative obscurity quite like Lilo & Stitch. The film was a full-fledged franchise in its heyday spawning multiple television series, two direct-to-video sequels, a Kingdom Hearts cameo, and its own video game. To be fair, Disney did have a reference to Lilo & Stitch in Moana ‐ early on, Moana helps a baby turtle make its way into the ocean by obscuring it from birds under a palm frond. A solid “save the cat” moment that creates a presumption of goodness and a sly reference to Lilo & Stitch. Stitch, in a post-credit image, is seen shadowing a turtle and its child in the same way. It’s a fun little throwback to Disney’s first foray into depicting Polynesian culture.
Lilo & Stitch starts with Jumba (David Ogden Stiers), a Russian-accented gray blob of an alien, facing charges brought by the Galactic Federation for “illegal genetic experiments.” Jumba denies dabbling in genetic machinations. That’s soon proven a lie as Stitch (Chris Sanders) is the result of Jumba’s experiments. The Grand Councilwoman (Zoe Caldwell) of the Galactic Federation then expositions us through the baseline of Stitch’s character. Stitch, the little blue-gray space Koala, has been bred to be a mini Godzilla meets Rocket Raccoon. He’s an agent of chaos and destruction. Or, as Lilo Pelekai (Daveigh Chase) later explains, Stitch’s badness level is “unusually high for someone [Stitch’s] size.” Stitch is then sentenced to prison as is his creator. Subsequently, he escapes and boosts himself into hyper-drive landing on the island of Kaua’i.
Kaua’i is photogenic. The island has been captured on film many times ‐ Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park are just two instances that spring to mind. However, in Lilo & Stitch Kaua’i isn’t standing in for a nameless jungle and is instead playing itself for once. Similar to Disney’s Pocahontas, Lilo & Stitch luxuriates in the landscape of its setting. Pocahontas envisions its New World as vast, mysterious, and colorful. Lilo & Stitch opts to make Kaua’i equally as vibrant while stressing the confining aspects of island living. The only time Stitch ventures around the island with any expansive visual gusto akin to Pocahontas is when Stitch, craving to destroy a large city, high-jacks a tricycle and goes in search of a city and finds none. Lilo states: “It’s nice to live on an island with no large cities.” Isolation was a primary goal when choosing Kaua’i as the feature’s location. Initially, the story took place in rural Kansas, but landlocked Kansas does not necessarily scream isolation as much as a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Following the decision to move the location from Kansas to Hawai’i, the story and style of the film shifted. Part of that change was the attempt to capture the sense of community within Hawai’i. In an interview with “Hana Hou!”, Hawaiian Airlines’ magazine, DeBlois and Sanders observed that during their research tours their guides seemed to “know everybody.” They acknowledged that island life, especially rural island life, is characterized by the type of small town whimsy that politicians center their discourse around. Everyone knows everyone. Communities are small. There is no mystery. There’s just a main street, some houses, and the ocean. Lilo & Stitch reflects this in a way that Moana does not. Whereas Moana and Pocahontas’ vistas show off stunning feats of animation, Lilo & Stitch concerns itself with using setting provide context and enrich the characters.
Lilo & Stitch loves its island but does not shy away from the island’s limitations. Part of this is that Lilo & Stitch’s contemporary timeframe allows it to show actual Polynesians working in the tourist trade. Hawai’i’s economy is so contingent on the tourist trade that any ebb and flow of the economy can make or break families. If coal is the lifeblood of West Virginia, honeymoons are the lifeblood of the islands.
The film layers a complex visual depiction of island life through incorporating the tourism trade into the foreground of the narrative. Lilo takes Polaroids of tourists tanning on the beach. Nani references the fact that the Luau she works at is a “good job.” Further, it’s shown that outside of tourist jobs there isn’t much around. We see Nani try to gain employment from grocers and tiny shops all in vain. Further, the background and music choices nail the feel of the shabby, outdated hotels and restaurants. Elvis plays on a record player in the house. Nani and Lilo’s house has an empty feeling. The rooms are messy and the appliances shabby. It’s a similar feel to the abandoned coal and factory hubs you see in the United States. In the end, it is a good reminder that regardless of geography all Americans are subject to a merciless economy. Lilo & Stitch doesn’t shy away from this harsh reality of modern island life.
Moana has received criticism for its depiction of Polynesian culture and the relative sanitization of Polynesian legend, and that’s somewhat logical given that Moana isn’t grounded in a real island. Her location is a fictionalized island with real historical context and legend worked into it. The film is a Disney princess film, and it polishes itself with a high gloss to accomplish this. It’s commercial and simplified, and because of this, it feels more tourist-focused than the film with actual tourists in it. Polynesian culture is packaged cleanly for mass consumption. Though Moana gets a lot right, the most accurate thing it does is evoke the feeling of being happy to have a seat at the table while acknowledging that your place is reserved due to the novelty of your cultural experience.
Once in Kaua’i, Stitch is mistaken for a dog and adopted by Lilo and her sister, Nani (Tia Carrere). Lilo and Nani have suffered the loss of their parents. Whereas other Disney films treat the loss of parents as a justification for action and adventure, Lilo & Stitch concerns itself with the real business of life after becoming an orphan. Lilo, like Moana, isn’t running around worrying about going to some ball or signing coercive contracts to get some human legs. She’s a small child trying to cope with the loss of her parents, and like any child, she concerns herself with mystical answers to complicated questions. She runs out to the ocean every morning to feed Pudge the fish, who she believes controls the weather, because her parents died in a car accident during a storm. It’s such an earnest, childlike reaction to personal tragedy that it almost seems out of place in a Disney movie filled with alien-based mischief. In less-skilled hands, it would get slapped by critics for contributing to an uneven tone. Lilo & Stitch overcomes this by grounding these concerns into the central theme of the narrative: family.
At the center of Lilo & Stitch’s story is the idea of ʻohana or family. The idea of the collective working together. This sense of family extends not only to the sisters dealing with the loss of their parents, but Polynesian culture as family. The context of the island and the use of island slang places the characters in a distinct cultural milieu. Lilo and Nani are not divorced from their surroundings their story is emotionally deepened by it. The economic depression of the island raises the stakes of Nani’s job search and fight to keep her sister. The limited pool of potential friends available to Lilo drives her into herself, and the island’s location keeps Stitch from acting on his aggression. Kaua’i pushes back on the characters as they move within it. Where Moana concerns itself with re-imagining myth and legend, Lilo & Stitch focuses on the personal and intimate.
Nani and Lilo have one of the most genuine and raw sibling relationship ever depicted in a Disney film. The film establishes it early and never relents. Frankly, when it comes to depicting sisters Lilo & Stitch even outpaces Frozen. We are introduced to Nani and Lilo’s relationship through a disastrous social services check. Subsequently, Nani attempts to explain to her sister the gravity of their current situation. They need to make changes to how they do things but Lilo, depressed and friendless, doesn’t want to participate. Nani, at only 19, is not entirely up to the challenge of raising her younger sister and it shows. Not only that, but the dynamic between sister and legal guardian has not been entirely navigated. As a result, Nani and Lilo have a sibling fight during the film that is so relatable it borders on uncomfortable. Both sisters know what to say to wound each other as they know each other on a level that only siblings can.
From the outset, this is the kind of plot that Disney doesn’t do much anymore. Dare I say, it’s almost Pixar-style storytelling with the use of a jarring event like the arrival of an equally damaged Stitch to an already fragile family unit. Combine the interpersonal family drama, the mourning of both parents, and a depressed tourism-based economy and you have the raw materials for a touching family drama. Add in Stitch, as comic relief struggling with his own identity crisis, and you have a Disney movie. Lilo & Stitch is the perfect bridge between finding community and finding self.
Where does this leave us? For starters, Lilo & Stitch gives a progressive depiction of sisterhood that far predates Frozen. All of the cultural representation that Moana is praised for, Lilo & Stitch both predates and expands. All of the complicated historical effects of colonization that Pocahontas attempts to address, Lilo & Stitch confronts. In short, Lilo & Stitch deserves better simply because it does everything better.