Lilo & Stitch has always been the oddball in the Disney family. By design, too – the memorable advertising campaign for the film had Stitch interrupting and ruining key scenes of various Disney Renaissance films, accompanied by posters with the slogan ‘There’s one in every family’. Stitch’s oddness in the Disney canon goes beyond just the intended weirdness of the character, though – there’s not really another Disney film like it, in terms of tone, humour or setting.
Lilo & Stitch is the only one of the post-renaissance films to have really endured, save perhaps Treasure Planet – which was far less critically acclaimed. Atlantis was fairly popular, but certainly not the franchise opportunity Stitch represented. It was quite the brave experiment, but in the right direction, unlike the likes of Home on the Range, the death knell of Disney’s traditional animation department until the recent CPR operation of The Princess and the Frog. Lilo & Stitch belong in the general post-renaissance mood of trying to modernise and offering something different from the rest of the canon, but unlike the other films, really does it right.
Lilo & Stitch is small-budget and small scale. It is not a fair story, or based on one. It is not a fantasy of medieval Europe, nor that fantasy displaced to the far future. It is sci-fi, but based on silly aliens entering the everyday world of modern-day characters. And not just the typical all-American family of live-action Disney: a struggling, ‘broken’ family of just two sisters struggling to make ends meet in Hawaii and avoid social services taking away little Lilo. Artistically, it ignores the Disney house style in favour of big, cute, stylised faces with large round noses and spontaneous watercolour backgrounds. There are no songs in the traditional sense, the music almost entirely diegetic and much of it favourite Elvis hits. And the humour is the glib, snappy, economical humour of films like The Iron Giant or Pixar’s best, which Disney has more whole-heartedly adopted in recent films like Tangled.
And it just works. Stitch is an alien bred purely for destruction by the silly ‘evil genius’ Doctor Jumba, made likeable in part by an eccentric Russian accent provided by David Ogden Stiers, making far more of an impact than he did in Pocahontas. Stitch escapes from captivity and heads to Earth, where he meets cute little Lilo and begins to learn what a family is. Will his destructive impulses get in the way of the understanding between species, will the trouble he causes mean Lilo gets taken away from her sister, and what will happen when the Galactic Federation comes to intervene?
The film keeps things light, apart from the family drama, allowing it to hit much harder than it might have otherwise. The aliens are always silly and largely incompetent, and Stitch never seems overly dangerous – especially because he’s very cute. The humour shines through and though you never get the impression the world has been saved, life in a little family has been made better and some powerful people were made to think twice. It’s neat, paced well, and satisfies.
It’s interesting to note, too, that while Stitch has been a modest success in the English-speaking world, the Far East have Stitch-mania to an extreme. So while you may find one or two items in a high street Disney store in a Western city, the Chinatown will probably have numerous bootleg goods with his face on it. The craze seems to be tied in with Japan’s gyaru movement and their love of Hawaii, but has swept over every part of East Asia I’ve been to, even rural Taiwan. Madhouse even made their own spin-off where instead of Hawaii Stitch goes to Okinawa. And then of course Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep has a full world with Stitch characters and sets lovingly recreated from the film. On the other hand, the Far East seems to love Mickey Mouse in a way kids in the West don’t seem to have for a good seventy years…
Stitch’s legacy is quite unusual in Disney’s canon and will undermine many generalisations about the studio’s output. That can only be a good thing in my eyes, and there’s no doubt the studio’s 2000-2010 output, especially considered without Pixar, would be far weaker without it.