Saturday, March 23, 2013

2002 - Lilo & Stitch

It’s a time of risks for Disney, and the risks were not always paying off. While they hadn’t had any legit flops, every new idea they tried was falling short of their expectations. With that frame of mind, CEO Michael Eisner thought back another time they’d had a couple of underperforming artistic movies, namely Pinocchio and Fantasia. The response then, if you recall, was to make a cheap crowd-pleaser, Dumbo. So the budget of their next film was reduced by 40 million, and production was started on an odd little idea by storyboard artist Chris Sanders, who was named director. Sanders had developed the stories and visuals of Mulan, The Lion King, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast, so he had a pedigree, but this was his first directing effort. And far from the ancient times and fairy tales he had worked with before, this was a modern-day comedy about aliens. In addition to directing, he also did the storyboards, screenplay, character design, and the voice of Stitch, making this more of an auteur effort than usual for the company, another risk. Would the payoff be greater than other recent efforts? Would Sanders become a company hero, or would his directing debut be a dismal disaster? Allow me to add suspense by pointing out that this was the last film Sanders ever worked on for Disney. Suspensed? So am I. So get some poi and a plate lunch, and let’s talk about Lilo & Stitch.

Okay, I need to dispel the suspense first before I can say what I want to lead with: Sanders was indeed fired from his next directorial position at Disney, a movie called American Dog. He left the company and was hired in the development department of Dreamworks, where he remains to this day. So if Disney didn’t like what he was doing there, what does that say about this movie?

I’m going to be very clear. At the end of this endeavor, I will be making a top 10 list. Since the movies are all good in different ways, I’ll just be doing them in chronological order, rather than ranking them. After all, they all work in different ways, how can I compare them? But I know this: If I were to be ranking them, Lilo & Stitch would be number one. No contest.

When I write these reviews, I tend to focus on five things. Story and Script, Animation, Characters, Acting, and Music. And, I suppose, Additional Thoughts, which if we were to quantify it, we can say it’s a measure of how the movie held my interest. This movie hits all of those elements perfectly. Let’s start with the story.

Market research.
The plot revolves around two individuals Lilo Pelekai and Experiment 626. We open in space where a mad scientist, Jumba Jookiba, is on trial for illegal genetic engineering. His creation is 626, a living weapon. Jumba is found guilty and 626 is to be destroyed, but it escapes and makes a hyperspace jump that lands it on Earth, Hawai’i to be precise. Meanwhile, we meet Lilo, a troubled child who’s having difficulty adjusting to life in the care of her sister Nani after the death of their parents. After a particularly disastrous visit from the social worker Cobra Bubbles, (“Bubbles? That’s an unusu-” “I know.”) Nani decides to get Lilo a dog, hoping that caring for it will steady her sister emotionally. 626, who has found himself in the shelter where they go to adopt their pet, arranges his alien body into something resembling a blue koala and a Chihuahua and gets himself adopted by Lilo, rationalizing that she can be an effective human shield against any aliens who pursue him. Seeing herself in Stitch’s behavior, Lilo attempts to teach him to be a good person, as Nani tries to get a stable job so she can retain custody of Lilo.

What makes the story work so well is that is does not try to soften its blows in the plot or characters. Nani and Lilo’s situation is not ideal. It may not even be any good. Nani is overworked, overstressed, and unprepared to care for a child. She clearly loves Lilo, but may not be the best caretaker. This makes Bubbles not just some menacing authority figure with a weird name, but someone that you can honestly and sincerely believe wants the best for Lilo, even if that means making the hard choices. And when Stitch comes into their lives, he’s not just a ‘troublemaker’ or ‘prankster’, he’s genuinely destructive. This movie is set in a world where actions have consequences.

Lilo actually seems like a child, as well. These movies give us a lot of poorly-written kids, and that is not happening here. As a teacher, I’ve worked with kids like Lilo. She’s not a bad kid, but her emotional situation has left her with almost no impulse control. At one point, she starts punching and biting a classmate who called her weird, and when her teacher stops her, she immediately pulls her hands behind her back and starts apologizing. And she means it, she just had no ability to stop herself. In the moment that precedes this, she’s passionately explaining how she needs to give a peanut butter sandwich to a fish every Tuesday. When she says it’s because the fish controls the weather, the adults in the room all get very odd expressions, and it‘s only later that you learn Lilo‘s parents died in a thunderstorm. It‘s a fantastic role that lets itself go very over the top while still being totally grounded.

Stitch is also very well-written. His destructive programming is designed to attack cities and large population centers, and his only weakness is that he’s completely non-buoyant, so he can’t swim. So when he winds up on an island with no big cities, he’s at a loss. Even his creator doesn’t know what his programming will do when faced with this situation. So after attempts at destruction and violence are met with reprimand and a spray from a squirt bottle, he doesn’t know what to do. He wants to act well, but doesn’t know how. When Lilo shows him a book of The Ugly Duckling, he knows that he has to find a family. And when he finally defends himself to the aliens by walking to Lilo and Nani and saying (his first full sentences in English), “This is my family. I found it all on my own. It’s little and broken. But still good. Yeah. Still good.”… I cry. I cried like a baby watching this on an airplane, and I even teared up just now typing it.

Also, comedy!

Wow, I just spent three paragraphs talking about how emotionally real this movie gets, and I think I might be giving you the wrong impression about it. It’s incredibly funny. Lilo’s matter-of-fact delivery of her occasionally bizarre lines is great, and while Stitch is destructive, it’s in the finest tradition of a Looney Tune. The aliens who are on earth to hunt him down, his mad creator Dr. Jumba and the nebbish exozoologist Pleakley are also hilarious. In another very Warner-esque touch, they go undercover as a tourist and his wife, and despite Pleakley having one huge eye and tentacles, the wig seems to cover any questions anyone has about them. There’s also David, a good natured dork with a thing for Nani, and Gantu, a 20-foot brute who is sent to get Stitch when Jumba and Pleakley fail. Both of them manage to be very likeable and funny while still advancing the drama of the Earth and space plots, respectively.

The acting is again excellent. Disney keeps up its laudable trend of ethnically appropriate actors with Hawai’i natives Tia Carerre and Jason Scott Lee as Nani and David, both of whom do a great job, and helped the writers put in a lot of local slang and other regional terms. Chris Sanders plays Stitch, because he has to do everything. We get another fine performance from David Ogden Stiers as Jumba, and Kids in the Hall vet Kevin McDonald as Pleakley. But the standout is young Daviegh Chase as Lilo. Chase is an astonishingly talented young actress - you may know her as Samara from The Ring or as Samantha Darko from Donnie Darko - who just finished up a long and very good run on Big Love, and hopefully she makes it through that weird child actor intermediary period. With luck, she comes out of it as more of a Ryan Gosling than an Ashley Olsen. In terms of fame and longevity, not what parts she plays.

The music deserves a mention, as well. The film is not a musical, though there are two original pieces of Hawai’ian music on the soundtrack. The bulk of the music, however, is Elvis songs. Lilo is a huge Elvis fan, and uses his movies and music to try and teach Stitch, thus leading to much Elvis on the soundtrack. I largely approve of this, as I’m a big Elvis fan. I mean, who isn’t? My favorite Elvis song, Burning Love, is played over the ending montage, and it’s such a great montage, I don’t even mind that they used a cover version by Wynonna.

"And an Elvis song covered by Wynonna is an ABOMINATION!"

Animation is also great. Sanders has a very distinctive visual style, and it works wonderfully here. Human faces are fun and expressive, and best of all, they look like real people. Nani has thick legs and a waist that kind of looks like it belongs on a human. Lilo and the other kids are chubby, because that‘s what kids look like. The aliens have a great variation. A lot of them are based on designs he did when hired to create the Beast from Beauty and the Beast, and he responded by drawing any kind of insane monster he could think of. (They wound up using none of them)  There’s also a few based on Winnie-the-Pooh characters, which is fun. The backgrounds, for the first time since Dumbo, are done in watercolors, which really brings out the tropical feel.

So yeah, I can’t recommend this enough. The comedy, the cleverness, the animation, the feminism, the surprising verisimilitude,  the treating Hawai’i as an actual place instead of just somewhere white people go on vacation, everything about it is great. This is one of the best movies Disney has ever produced, and it is my personal favorite. If you haven’t seen it, see it now. If you have, see it again.


* Yes, I spell Hawai’i with an apostrophe. It’s how the Hawai’ians spell it. I’m not going to negate that because of some lazy white mapmakers.

* Well, technically, I spell it with an ‘okina. Interestingly enough, there is more debate on the spelling of Hawai’ian, with some choosing to go with Hawaiian even if their preferred spelling of the state is Hawai’i.

* If you're wondering about the poster, the original marketing campaign for this movie consisted of famous scenes from the Disney Renaissance ruined by Stitch. Like dropping the chandelier on Belle and the Beast as they dance. They're very funny, and you can see them here.

* There’s a great running gag about Pleakley’s fondness for mosquitoes, which he has classified as critically endangered. It starts as just a simple gimmick to explain why the aliens don’t all-out attack the Earth, but they keep using it for little jokes, and there’s a great payoff.

I also tear up at this part, but it's only because I'm SO HAPPY.

* There were a number of deleted scenes that drove in the emotional damage issue even more, and I really wish they were kept in. One was for Lilo, where a passing tourist yells at her for directions from his car, asking her if she speaks English. Shortly thereafter, Lilo goes to the beach and pretends the tsunami sirens are going off, effectively ruining the tourists‘ days. Disney claims it got the cut because it was too soon after 9/11 for a disaster warning joke, but I can’t help but think it was a little to scathing toward tourist culture for the company that profits so much from it. Lilo’s resentment of tourists is still in the film, via a weird running gag where she likes to take photos of obese, sunburned people.

* Another deleted scene focused on Stitch, wherein he accidentally kills Pudge, the weather fish. This caused him to learn about mortality and the consequences of his actions. Cut for being too heavy, even for a relatively heavy film.

* The last major deleted scene was DEFINITELY altered for 9/11-related purposes, as it involved Stitch chasing a spaceship by hijacking a 747 and flying it through Honolulu. The animation was heavily altered so Stitch could take a spacecraft and fly it through the O’ahu mountains instead. This is better, anyway, as it kept the action local.

* My autocorrect changes exozoologist to erotologist. What do they think I’m writing here? It also automatically capitalizes Hawai’i as Hawai’I and then tells me I’m spelling it wrong until I fix what it changed on me. That seems way passive aggressive.

1 comment:

  1. From what I understand, a good chunk of the native population more or less despises the white residents and particularly tourists.

    Can't say as I blame them, really. Hawai'i was one of those places we took over when "The White Man's Burden" was a phrase used without irony, after all.