When Lilo & Stitch came out in 2002, I was in a phase where I no longer cared for Disney Animation films. After Tarzan, my excitement and interest for Disney films was gone, and replaced by enthusiasm for Pixar's output, which was (and still is) formidable. So, while I was disenchanted by films like Atlantis and Dinosaur, I was utterly thrilled by Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc. By the time Lilo & Stitch was released, I was completely devoted to Pixar, so I wasn't excited by this film. When I first saw it, more than ten years ago, I wasn't impressed and quickly discarded it like I did with so many of its contemporaries. As I got older and wiser (hopefully), I've come to realise how good Lilo & Stitch is and how it has stood the test of time to become a true Disney classic.
Lilo & Stitch succeeds on every level because it tells the story of a broken family, something that Disney hadn't tackled before, and it tells it in a way that feels real. The characters are not perfect and this gives ample opportunity for conflict not resolved by magic. The characters struggle with their situation and you can feel their pain and the constant battle to appear like a "normal" family. The first part of this decade was filled with Disney films that tried to depart from the 90s Broadway formula in favour of more "mature" stories that would appeal to teens. Unfortunately, most of these so called "teen" films were poorly received both critically and financially. On the other hand, Lilo & Stitch departs from the Broadway formula, but does it in a very effective way, telling a story that resonates with every member of the audience, providing rich characters and great entertainment.
Directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois (who later directed the wonderful How to Train Your Dragon) crafted a world with elements that, on first sight, wouldn't fit together but that, in their expert hands come together perfectly. By setting the film in Hawaii, you have a more "laid-back" pace with sunny beaches and a generally peaceful time. But mix that with aliens from outer space and what you get is the best of both worlds, with the calmness of the beach and the high-tech conflict from space.
The characters are richly drawn and full of life and layers. Lilo is a perky little girl who is obviously not the "perfect princess" type but rather an odd girl with some questionable habits which make her an outsider in her family and social circle. Nanny tries to do the best she can but still loses her temper and she obviously has a lot on her plate to worry about. The sisters' relationship feels real because of how the characters were written and designed; not everything is perfect but you can see that they love each other. Then we have Stitch, who is just pure evil (at first) but has the most satisfying arc, as he goes through lots of changes and is ultimately able to transform himself and alter the purpose for which he was created in what is one of the most powerful and heartfelt arcs in the Disney canon. The rest of the characters are mostly for laughs but still add great elements to the picture as the humour is well-balanced and doesn't harm the overall quality of the story.
The animation can be seen as "simple" at first, but the watercolour style is simply amazing with rich colours and a wonderful style that departs from the more highly-stylized pictures like Atlantis and Treasure Planet. This unique design allows the film to be dramatic with a little cartoony touch which adds immensely to the story. The use of music is greatly employed; using Elvis Presley's songs is one of the smartest moves from the filmmakers because they really complement the film and what it is trying to tell. Alan Silvestri's score gives the film the necessary oomph, helping it soar to new heights.
In a decade that was mostly filled with half-baked stories and poorly written characters, Lilo & Stitch is a throwback to the great 90s films. Not in style, but in how the story is told. The 90s films used music to tell wonderful stories; Lilo & Stitch is not a musical and doesn't have the usual trademarks of that decade, but the high quality of its story and the messages it imparts would've make it a fitting inclusion in that grand decade. Ohana never sounded better. Rating: 4.5/5.
Next Week - Animated Classic #43 Review: Treasure Planet (2002).