Lilo & Stitch (2002)

D: Dean DeBois, Chris Sanders
S: Voices of Daveigh Chase, Tia Carerre

An indestructible, uncontrollable genetic experiment escapes from a distant planet and crash-lands on earth, where it takes shelter from its pursuers with a young Hawaiian orphan girl. She's being raised by her older sister, but under constant threat from social services, this 'broken family' (which now features the alien creature, who is posing as a dog) may not survive. Nah. Of course it will: it's Disney, right? Wacky comedy adventure is the order of the day though, thematically rooted by its central message that even the most out-of-control youngster just needs love and support to find their place in a harmonic universe.

In spite of the animation renaissance which saw the inauguration of the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2001, Disney continue to have a firm hold on the fairytale market. Their adaptations of classic stories including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame firmly established them as the market leaders throughout the 1990s, reclaiming the vacant throne they had relinquished in the 1960s. Ironically enough, part of the reason for the slippage of Disney's hold in the first place had been their attempt to 'modernise' their films with savvy humour and more stylised animation which 'lost' the 'classic' look and feel. It worked on films like 101 Dalmations, but fell flat in others from The Aristocats to Oliver & Company.

In recent years, following the success of the '90s fairytale films, the studio have resumed their change of direction. The shift has been more gradual, with titles like Hercules and Mulan sticking pretty close to formula but gradually moving towards a more abstract and wacky style which has come to fruition with The Emperor's New Groove and Lilo & Stitch. Though it is tempting to see Lilo & Stitch as Disney's knee jerk reaction to the irreverent parody of Shrek (especially after an advertising campaign which overcooked the idea of the central character being a 'black sheep' in the Disney family), it really is therefore more a general part of a slow process of refocusing. The studio has now successfully found a way to diversify its market base by producing made-for-tv sequels to the fairytale films, reissuing the classics again and again, and then tentatively testing new ground.

In another sense, Lilo & Stitch is also merely the most recent incarnation of the classic Disney short subjects, a kind of extended Silly Symphony which combines surrealistic oddness with the morality play. The score by Alan Silvestri does not occupy the kind of narrative space which music did previously, but luckily there are few enough songs on the soundtrack either (a couple of significant Elvis tunes excepted). It is a strange little story, more a sketch really, and it trades heavily on a couple of basic gags combined with an array of peculiar characters to make it work. The most peculiar is Stitch himself, of course, never more peculiar than when Lilo teaches him to mimic Elvis in an attempt to make him a 'model citizen', but there is also fun to be had in the form of the scientist who created the creature (voiced by David Ogden Stiers), and various other miscellaneous aliens with a vested interest in his capture. The human characters are a little more bland. Lilo herself is initially quite edgy, but settles down to a fairly conventional little girl before too long. Ving Rhames voices a menacing social services investigator whose mode of dress gives away the twist punchline far too early, although other little gags about sci-fi movie conventions are more effective.

Lilo & Stitch is a harmless and enjoyable little movie which, after quite a bright start, does eventually settle into the expected Disney stuff before picking up again for a sci-fi chase finale. Writer/Directors Dean DeBois and Chris Sanders keep the morals and sentimentality relatively in check, the voice casting is solid enough, and there are enough breezy and entertaining moments to make it fun. Animation buffs will probably find the anatomical details of most interest, with yet another strange take on the human form finding its way to the screen amid the plethora of semi-naked people who inevitably populate the Hawaiian setting (a sub-plot has Lilo taking pictures of fat people as a kind of nature project). The 'Stitch' animation is also fun, the creature's rapid movements and predilection for destruction making him a kind of ersatz hyperactive six year old. There is nothing in here that really soars, but there isn't much that clunks either. The result is pleasurable enough without being particularly inspiring. Kids should love it, especially naughty ones whose own idea of fun would correspond with Stitch's desire to build a scale model of San Francisco out of bits and pieces of toys and furniture, then stomp all over it like a giant monster from a fifties B movie.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.