I think “Lilo And Stitch” is the closest thing the Post-Renaissance era had to “The Lion King” or “Frozen“. The unexpected, runaway hit that brought Disney loads of money and critical acclaim and spawned a franchise that would seemingly never die for several years afterwards (Japan in particular loved Stitch). To this day, there are still plenty of people who would list “Lilo And Stitch” as one of their top five favorite movies from the Disney canon. As a kid, I thought it was a good movie with a good cast, but it was never one of my favorites, and as an adult, “Lilo And Stitch” is actually one of the few Disney movies out there where my opinion on it differs every time I watch it, depending on my mood. Sometimes, I think it’s enjoyable, and other times I think it’s rather cringy and slow. So when I sat down to watch it critically for this review, I actually had no idea how I was going to feel about it. I think it holds up pretty well and I have a better grasp of its appeal, though I would say the second half of this movie, starting from the surfing sequence, is a much better film than the first half.
Thanks to all the rampant dickishness and self-involved behavior from most of the cast (the amoral aliens because they’re amoral aliens and Lilo because she’a a rather small and bratty child), the first half of “Lilo And Stitch” can feel overly mean-spirited. The plot can also feel a bit too repetitive. There are a lot scenes where it seems like things might go well for our heroes or something might be salvageable, only for the worst possible thing to happen instead and crush that fleeting hope dead, and after a while that constant swerve starts to feel tired and somewhat predictable. Lastly, the first half of “Lilo And Stitch” really goes out of it’s way to emphasize how creepy and gross Stitch is before his character development starts to set in, and it almost works too well. I think I could have done without seeing Stitch stick his tongue up his nose to devour his own muscus, or Stitch swallowing Pleakley’s head whole and starting to bite down on it. I’m just saying.
Lilo is a rather odd, unique and introverted girl. She obsesses over minute things, enjoys taking pictures of overweight strangers, tries to practice voodooism, and likes to listen to rock and roll classics. She’s quirky and bizarre, and as a result, the other girls at school avoid her and try to make her an outcast despite her desire to make friends, which takes a toll on her self-esteem. There is another reason though, besides Lilo being misunderstood. Lilo is honestly kind of a pain for much of the movie. She starts fights at school, locks her sister out of the house and gets in her trouble with the social worker on purpose, hits her in the head with a door, and helps blow every single one of Nani’s chances at getting another job because she seemingly doesn’t realize that her attempts to turn Stitch into a ‘model citizen’ are just making things worse and she should just quit while she’s behind.
Lilo’s brattiness and her lack of perspective can be cringy and frustrating to watch, but part of it is because she’s a young kid and she’s going to be naive, and the other part ties into her tragic backstory. Lilo and Nani’s parents are implied to have died shortly before the start of the movie (because it wouldn’t be Disney without some dead parents), leaving Nani to fill a role she can’t really handle on her own and leaving Lilo to deal with a loss she’s only just old enough to understand. Some people cope with grief by becoming depressed and drawing into themselves, while others lash out, and Lilo is the latter, hence her behavior. Lilo receives Stitch so she can have someone to befriend, shower with love and affection, and fill the void in her heart left by her parents. She spends much of the movie trying to tame Stitch and connect to him, and eventually succeeds. She tries to be more understanding of her dog’s oddities than the other kids are with her own. Lilo’s biggest redeeming quality is her belief in the importance of family and that family should always be there for each other, which is of course, the main theme of the movie.
Stitch is a genetically-engineered hybrid who looks like a cross between a koala and an insect. With titanic strength, super fast reflexes and keen intellect, Stitch is a chaotic little gremlin who was created by his inventor to bring about mass destruction and anarchy, with no hope for reformation. Stitch is initially sentenced to exile on a desert planet by the galactic counsel before he escapes to Earth and becomes a fugitive. Once there, Stitch decides to pose as Lilo’s dog for as long as he has to. For about half of the film, Stitch is gleefully, unapologetically evil and entirely goal-focused, just as he was programmed to be. If Lilo can be rude and self-involved sometimes, Stitch puts her to shame. He can’t follow his destructive programming to the fullest though and quickly grows restless.
Unable to fulfill his only purpose in life and with no one else around like him who can understand him, Stitch goes through an existential crisis. Despite what Jumbaa claims, Stitch is still young and new – he’s something of a blank slate and he has the potential to absorb new ideas. He gains a desire to belong somewhere, which gives him and Lilo something in common to bond over. Lilo wants him to feel like part of her family, so she teaches him about friendship and Ohana, and he finds those concepts appealing. Stitch’s rehabilitation arc from villain to hero plays out about the way you would expect, but the effectiveness is in how gradual it is. Stitch comes to genuinely care about Lilo and Nani, but in an ironic (or perhaps karmic?) twist, the alien who had previously reveled in being violent and evil cannot seem to escape his original programming. He’s apparently incapable of being good or well-adjusted and he only succeeds in ruining every aspect of their lives, which causes him massive guilt and turmoil. It’s only because Lilo is regrettably kidnapped by aliens in the last act that Stitch is given the opportunity to step up as the beloved family pet and prove himself by fixing some of his failures, earning his place in the family.
Nani is my personal favorite character of the bunch, and easily the most sympathetic figure in the movie, more so than Lilo and Stitch themselves. As Lilo’s older sister and caretaker, Nani has a huge responsibility on her plate. She puts all her dreams, career possibilities and potential relationships on hold so she can try to hold down a job to support herself and her sister, keep Lilo fed and happy, and keep her out of trouble. Keep in mind, Nani is only college age – the film makes it clear that, like Lilo, she can be hotheaded and immature – and she must surely miss her parents as terribly as Lilo does, but she has to be the grown-up now. While trying to do so many things on her own, with only David around to help her, Nani is clearly tired and overwhelmed. Her failed attempts to emulate her parents are taking a strain on her relationship with Lilo, since she can’t be a mom and a big sister at the same time. What doesn’t help is Lilo, Stitch, Jumbaa and Pleakley making everything worse than it already was.
As the movie progresses, Nani is faced with the terrible possibility that as much as she loves Lilo, she might not be what’s best for her and she might have to give her up, whether she wants to or not. The thought of what that might do to Lilo, who is essentially a child with special needs, terrifies her. Over the course of one movie, Nani loses her parents, her job, her home and eventually her sister when aliens kidnap her. When Nani finally and quite rightly breaks down and cries, because she’s lost everything, it’s legitimately painful to watch and it’s an immense relief when Stitch and the others agree to help her save Lilo. I’ve praised Disney for exploring different types of sibling relationships in their 21st century films, and while “Lilo And Stitch” isn’t one of my favorite examples, that trend started in this movie. Lilo and Nani have their share of heated fights, but they’ll always have each other to turn to at the end of the day.
David is a minor supporting character; he’s Nani’s best friend and her love interest. David hopes to someday be her boyfriend, and Nani clearly reciprocates his feelings, but she has her hands full, and for now he’s content with helping her and Lilo in whatever way he can. David is nice – a bit goofy, as you would expect from a surfer in basically any movie – but it’s good to see that the sisters have some sort of support system beyond each other. With the family drama cleared up and the Pelekais finally having some space to breathe again, Nani and David are finally allowed to be together at the end of the film.
Cobra Bubbles (yes, that is his name) is the rather intimidating and aloof social worker that comes to scrutinize Lilo and Nani’s home life. For most of the movie, Cobra wholly embodies the scary black man trope, and seems to resemble one of the Men in Black. This of course leads up to the reveal that Cobra used to work with the CIA and has dealt with aliens before, which begs the still unanswered and probably interesting question of how and why a CIA agent became a social worker. Somewhat refreshingly, while Cobra is an obstacle and a threat to Nani’s way of his life, he isn’t evil or solely interested in his job. He truly wants what’s best for the kids he looks in on, all he sees in this movie is a total train-wreck, and when he learns aliens have been tampering in everything he relents fairly quickly.
Dr. Jumbaa Joobika is Stitch’s inventor and a mad scientist who speaks with a thick Russian accent (he’s voiced by David Odgin Steers, who you’d honestly never connect to his previous role as Cogsworth in “Beauty And The Beast“, so that’s an impressive amount of range from Mr. Steers) . When we’re first introduced to Jumbaa, he’s clearly an unhinged and nefarious bio-geneticist. As a self-proclaimed ‘evil genius’, he loves causing chaos, mischief and destruction. He’s brutish, boisterous, hotheaded and thuggish, though he’s not unreasonable and at times comes across as a naughty little boy in an adult man’s body who’s overly proud of himself for being a troublemaker. It’s implied that he created Stitch less out of pure malice, and more out of a desire to test the boundaries of his field and cause as much as trouble as he could. When Stitch flees to Earth, Jumbaa is offered the chance to reverse his own sentence if he captures his experiment 626 and he accepts.
During the hunt for Stitch, Jumbaa is a lot more okay with the idea of human collateral damage than Pleakley is, since mad scientists aren’t that big on empathy, though this is usually played for laughs since he and Pleakley are the comedy relief duo. When it comes to his relationship with Stitch, Jumbaa is sort of a cross between Stitch’s creator and his somewhat messed-up father. You can tell there’s admiration and a bit of paternal affection in there for his creation, but it’s mixed in with a ton of self-involvement. Jumbaa’s immature and boyish personality eventually pays off in the last act when, despite spending the entire movie before now boasting about his evilness, all it takes it is one good dressing down from Nani and one request from Stitch to convince him to try to rescue Lilo from Gantu. Jumbaa is one of the most reliable sources of comedy in this movie, and strangely entertaining in just how messed-up he is.
Pleakley is the most talkative, opinionated and high-strung member of the Galactic council – a so-called Earth expert who doesn’t really know much about Earth at all and has a somewhat condescending view of everything that lives there. Pleakley gets assigned to the mission to recover Stitch, and is forcibly partnered up with Jumbaa. Ironically, Pleakley is originally afraid of the evil genius because he’s a rather burly and deranged criminal. I don’t know what happened during their trip to Earth, but this fear evaporates entirely by the next time we see them. To protect life on Earth, Pleakley tries his best to keep Jumbaa in check, and not only does he bitch him out several times, he also jumps him more than once. Pleakley is the more feminine one of the duo, and while he’s on Earth, he discovers a fondness for cross-dressing, never missing a chance to doll up in drag.
Pleakley’s complaining can get irritating at times, but out of all the alien characters, he’s easily the one who cares the most about preserving life from the start. When Stitch and Jumbaa are destroying the Pelekai’s home, Pleakley grabs Lilo and tries to get her as far away from Dodge as possible, and earlier than that, he saves mankind from possible destruction when the councilwoman was thinking about gassing the humans for the greater good. Gantu is the most antagonistic character in this movie, which is ironic since he also has the least amount of screentime. The hulking officer hates Stitch from the start, since he considers him an imprudent abomination, and has a score to settle with him after Stitch humiliates him. Gantu takes the callous and dismissive attitude the aliens often display to its furthest extreme when he knowingly kidnaps Lilo along with Stitch and could not care less if she gets killed, so long as he delivers Stitch to the council. Needless to say, the audience is rooting for Stitch to whup his butt during the climax.
The animation is standard level Disney material. This isn’t really the sort of film that allows the studio to show-off, since most of the plot takes place in a tiny town on an island, though the vivid color palette for the scenic Hawaiian landscape is rich and beautiful, making “Lilo And Stitch” one of the more visually appealing films from the post-renaissance era. There are a few standout sequences – like Stitch’s escape into space, the family pulling off some professional surfing moves in the windy, blue sea, and Stitch enacting a daring rescue to save Lilo from Gantu’s high-flying ship – where there’s a noticeable bump in animation quality and 3-D objects are blended into a 2-D environment impressively and seamlessly. It’s worth noting that like several other Disney characters (such as the Beast), Stitch’s design undergoes a gradual visual transformation, from a repulsive critter to a self-proclaimed ‘cute and fluffy’ koala, and it’s handled fairly well.
Alan Silvestri composes a nice, subtle score for the film, quietly sad and stirring in just the right places but big and heroic when it needs to be (“Stitch To The Rescue” is both determined and bombastic). There are only two original songs written for the film, the first of which, “He Mele No Lilo”, allows the movie’s Hawaiian culture to shine but isn’t really that memorable, and the second of which, “Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride”, is surprisingly sweet and endearing and the sort of song that will get stuck in your head for days afterwards. The rest of the soundtrack is comprised of Elvis songs, since Lilo is an Elvis fan. The Elvis songs are also a mixed bag; they fit the scenes they were picked for, but I wouldn’t say they were memorable and I’m not really an Elvis fan. The best song in the movie is the righteous finale number, “Burning Love” by Wynonna Judd.
My opinion on “Lilo And Stitch” is that it’s a good, solid movie and one of the standout films of the post-renaissance era, but at the same time, not a great one. There are quite a few things that are off-putting about it, and it’s also pretty slow to get going, since it’s only around the halfway point that it really starts to pick up in quality. The second half is really strong though.
* “He won’t survive in water, his molecular density is too great! … Wait, no“.
* “Ugh, we’ll have to gas the planet” Seriously though, what is wrong with you, lady?
* “My friends need to be punished” Well, at least she’s creative.
* “So why don’t you sell me and buy a rabbit instead?!” “At least a rabbit would behave better than you!”
* “You rotten sister, your butt is crushing me!”
* Is it bad that I laughed at Stitch becoming roadkill? It’s probably bad.
* “What is that thing?!” “A dog, I think, but it was dead this morning!” “It was dead this morning?!”
* “I want that one!” Of course you do.
* “Using little girl as shield, this is low even for you!” Why though? You don’t seem to have any qualms about almost offing Lilo yourself several times later in this movie.
* “No! That girl is part of the mosquito food chain! Here, educate yourself!” Heheh, Pleakley’s gonna love Tumblr when it’s invented in another seven years.
* “Look, it’s my friends!” Are they really, Lilo?
* These girls are only six or seven years old and they already have their own clique. I guess if you’re going to grow up to become the stereotypical high school mean girls, you’ve gotta start practicing early.
* “Don’t worry, she likes your butt and fancy hair. I read it in her diary”.
* “Did you lose your job because of Stitch and me?” “Nah, the manager’s a vampire who wanted me to join his legion of the undead” “… I knew it”.
* “Dad said ‘Ohana means family’, and family means-!” “Nobody gets left behind” “Or forgotten!”
* “Let me see that” “NO!” “SHARE!” “Ugh, you’re just jealous cause I’m pretty!”
* There’s no place I’d rather be than on my surfboard out at sea! Lingering in the ocean blue and if I had one wish come true! I’d surf ’til the sun sets beyond the horizon! ʻĀwikiwiki, mai lohilohi! Lawe mai i ko papa heʻe nalu! Flyin’ by on the Hawaiian roller coaster ride!”
* “Our family’s little now and we don’t have many toys, but if you want. you can be part of it. You could be our baby, and we’d raise you to be good. Ohana means family, and family means nobody gets left behind, but if you want to leave, you can. I’ll remember you though. I remember everyone that leaves”.
* “I created you, you were meant to destroy. You can never belong”.
* By this point, Nani is really desperate. The social worker is literally on his way to pick up Lilo and he won’t change his mind; I don’t think getting another job will help her now.
* Pleakley’s reaction to Stitch and Jumbaa trashing the house can best be described as “Aw, hell no!”
* “Please, don’t do this” “You know I have no choice” “No! You’re not taking her! I’m the only one who understands her! You take that away, she won’t stand a chance!” “You’re making this harder than it needs to be” “You don’t know what you’re doing! She needs me!” “Is this what she needs?! It seems clear to me that you need her a lot more than she needs you!”
* “You ruined everything, Stitch” Yep, and I’m pretty sure you helped too, girl.
* “Don’t leave me, okay?!” “Okay… Okay” Aww, that was cute.
* “You came back” “Nobody gets left behind”.
* “Actually, credit for the captures goes to-” Pleakley, you didn’t do jack.
* “If you take him, you’re stealing” “Aliens are all about rules”.
* “CIA?” “Former. Saved the planet once. Convinced an alien race that mosquitoes are an endangered species” Nobody tell Pleakley.
* “Cause your kisses lift me higher, like the sweet song of a choir! You light my morning sky with burning love, with burning love! Burning love! I’m just a hunk, a hunk of burning love! Just a hunk, a hunk of burning love! Just a hunk, a hunk of burning love!”
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