Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Surprisingly Adult Premise Makes Lilo & Stitch An Intriguing Disney Film!

The Good: Set-up, Moments where it commits to the premise, Character work, Decent character design.
The Bad: Predictable plot and character arcs, Sacrifices its mature elements for safety, Surprisingly violent for a children’s movie, Erratic animation quality.
The Basics: When an alien falls to Earth and ends up adopted by a Hawaiian girl in need, she finds family and the viewers find Lilo & Stitch unable to commit to its own premise.

I can admire when an established studio takes a real risk with its fan base. Disney certainly took a big risk with Lilo & Stitch, which was a science fiction animated Disney adventure that had a number of elements atypical to a Disney animated film. I find no small irony in the fact that the night after my wife sat me down to watch Lilo & Stitch, a film with a number of comparative elements to the Star Wars Saga, for the first time was the day before Disney bought Lucasfilm. If Lilo & Stitch is any indication, future Star Wars films will be troublingly safe, formulaic and problematically rendered. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much what most people say of the Star Wars movies now!

Lilo & Stitch is a science fiction story, though, with the character of Stitch being an alien. The film has a number of familiar elements, especially in the basic plot structure and character types, but the film opens with a comparatively audacious opening that is exceptionally engaging for Disney and science fiction fans. The Disney fans who do not give up on the film for how far from the norm it begins, are rewarded by a movie that develops into exactly like what one expects of a Disney film. As one who was impressed by the strong opening for the film, I ended up a bit more disappointed by the direction in which Lilo & Stitch went.

Experiment 626 is the creation of Jumba, a mad scientist who is incarcerated by the Grand Council of the galaxy. When the measures used to contain Experiment 626 fail, the small creature with two legs, four arms, giant ears and eyes and a mouth full of deadly fangs escapes and ends up crashing on Earth, on one of the Hawaiian islands. There, the creature comes into contact with Lilo. Lilo is a young girl, being cared for by her older sister, Nani, and getting into quite a bit of trouble. After biting a dance classmate and nailing shut the front door on Nani, Lilo’s family life is menaced by former CIA-turned-social-services-agent Cobra Bubbles. Agent Bubbles wants to make sure Lilo is adequately cared for by Nani and he is not at all impressed by their first meeting.

Given three days to shape up her family, Nani allows Lilo to buy a pet from the local animal shelter. There, she adopts the blue alien Experiment 626, whom she names Stitch. As Stitch is hunted by Jumba and his dimwitted police guardian, Pleakley, he causes Nani to lose her job and Nani goes on a quest to find a new job to keep her family safe and secure. While outrunning Jumba, Pleakley, and Captain Gantu of the space fleet, Stitch begins to bond with Lilo and come to understand that his destructive actions have consequences.

In the age of ADHD, Lilo & Stitch would seem to be exceptionally relevant. Unfortunately, the film fails to truly stick with its own premise. Jumba defines Experiment 626 as the ultimate destroying machine. Fast, strong, and destructive without remorse, Stitch is characterized initially as an agent of chaos. However, the simple lack of cities on the island seem enough to reform the creature from unstoppable evil to just periodically annoying. For sure, writers Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois might well be making a comment on how children who suffer from ADHD simply need a change in their environment. However, that does not work. Neither does Lilo’s approach which seems to be to try once, then guild the alien into doing what she wants.

I am, by no means, saying that Lilo & Stitch would be a stronger film if the main character never developed, but the speed of the development utterly undermines the premise of the film. Jumba, Pleakley, Gantu, and ultimately the Grand Councilwoman herself all arrive to do what they can to stop Stitch because the threat of him being out of their custody is perceived as so great. And yet, stuck on the island, there is remarkably little trouble the creature can get into and, more importantly, less it appears inclined to. So, Lilo & Stitch seems an overblown response to a significantly overstated problem.

As one expects from a Disney animated film, Lilo & Stitch is intended to show the strength of family, in this case a broken, small, Hawaiian family. Lilo is easy to empathize with; she lost her parents relatively recently and the film take the time to make some really perceptive comments on such situations. While Bubbles is initially characterized as a monolithic antagonist, his goals are always honorable; to make sure that Lilo is being cared for in the best possible way. When Lilo notes that she likes Nani better as a sister than a mother, it opens a complicated range of emotions and discussions. It is easy to empathize with Lilo, who has lost her parents, and equally easy to empathize with Nani, who is not much older than Lilo (there is a perception that she is in her late-teens, early twenties compared to Lilo, who is in (I believe the film said) first grade). Nani has lost her parents and been saddled with a child at a time in her life when she was very much ready to move on. It is hard not to empathize with that.

Lilo & Stitch opens with the threat of a big villain, who is easily pacified, and epic space battles and a lot of sound and fury that make the film seem like it will be intense and engaging throughout. Unfortunately, it settles pretty rapidly into very standard Disney fare and Lilo and Stitch bond and the alien learns the importance of family. It is very much the Disney formula, with the inclusion of the usual conceits, like the all-powerful authority figure that sits most of the film out (Grand Councilwoman) and the wisecracking sidekick (Pleakley).

The voiceovers in Lilo & Stitch are one of the superlative aspects of the film. All of the vocal talents, from Daveigh Chase (Lilo) and Tia Carrere (Nani) to David Ogden Stiers (Jumba) and Ving Rhames (Bubbles) are clear, emotive and distinctive. Lilo & Stitch benefits from having a decent caliber of actor performing the lines for the occasionally obvious and sometimes action-packed animated film.

But for all the leaps Lilo & Stitch takes to be audacious, clever, and interesting, it rapidly degenerates into exactly what one expects from a Disney animated movie. With a soundtrack of Elvis songs instead of characters singing, Lilo & Stitch makes the fantastic seem credible before it abandons the attempt, making a film more average than audacious.

For other Disney animated films, please visit my reviews of:
Toy Story 3
A Christmas Carol
The Princess And The Frog
The Incredibles
Monsters, Inc.
The Lion King
The Little Mermaid
Lady And The Tramp
The Sword In The Stone
Sleeping Beauty


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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