Revisiting Lilo & Stitch: Disney and progressive cinema

Lilo and Stitch disneyDisney’s 2013 feature Frozen has done a magnificent job of stirring the pot. The film has been lauded as a one of the most progressive of the pantheon to date, which has in turn sparked a series of discussions concerning the progressiveness of Disney films as a whole. It is no secret that these childhood cinematic memories have earned the scrutiny of many, yet they have always managed to supersede the harshest of them by being “timeless classics”. 

Yet the true blunder is that we often fail to notice that Disney has already produced its progressive masterpiece, and it is over a decade old. Like Frozen, its heart and soul revolves not around the fairy tale romance but rather the fierce affection and dedication found between two sisters, but unlike Frozen, it takes its accomplishments far off into the stars themselves, so far that we often forget of its existence.

Lilo & Stitch is that film.

Lilo is, like many of her animated brethren of similar age, a troubled youth with an overactive imagination. The only difference here is that Lilo’s problems are real. She is, quite frankly, an emotionally disturbed little girl, not simply one with quirks outside of the acceptable. Our introduction to her shows us her staunch, unyielding belief that a fish named Pudge requires weekly peanut butter sandwiches as tribute because he is master and controller of the weather. It is easy to laugh these off as the rantings of a young girl, but when another girl calls out her strangeness, Lilo attacks, punching and biting in a way that is not meant to be comical. This is the kind of behaviour we associate with children from a broken home, a youth meant to be looked at accusingly – the kind we send to detention, or worse. Lilo is not the Elsa or Anna, she is not a misguided yet hopeful soul filled with a wanderlust that cannot be satiated. Lilo is a girl with problems, ones that we can clearly relate to because they are real. Lilo acts like a girl going through something that is bigger and stranger than she can understand.

This is because that is precisely what is happening to Lilo. She lives with her twenty-something sister Nani, whose clumsiness and general lack of tact make keeping a job to support her and her little sister all the more difficult. Lilo is a realistic portrayal of a little orphan – her parents are dead, and we all react to that level of pain, despite our age or maturity, in an irrational, powerful, and generally selfish manner. She is teetering on the edge of being taken away by Social Services (portrayed as the outrageously threatening Man-In-Black Mr. Bubbles, who even has “cobra” tattooed on his knuckles). Lilo does not understand this, so she continues to make Nani’s already difficult life harder. Her actions when he comes to survey and assess the home are comical bordering on the extreme, but they still make us look and ask the same thing Nani herself does – “Do you want to be taken away?”

lilo and stitchStitch is a much-needed insane antithesis to the shockingly realistic protagonists. The result of a self-proclaimed evil genius’s multiple experiments in genetic tampering to create the ultimate instrument of destruction. Stitch (or “Experiment 626”) was created, quite literally, to be nothing more than an agent of un-tampered chaos and insanity. He is virtually indestructible, with the sole weakness of open expanses of water because of his “dense molecular structure”. Stitch has the same wanton and selfish desire to undo all the things that those around him have made.

Lilo and Stitch are true cinematic foils: Lilo finds it difficult not to wreak havoc on her surroundings, her profound distress buried deep enough that it manifests in such displays. Whereas Stitch cannot, quite frankly, do anything besides destroy. Lilo attempts to reach out and grasp those things from her past that she has lost and fill those empty spaces with anger and sadness – Stitch has no history whatsoever, and can find satisfaction only in removing the history of others. Stitch gives Lilo a purpose, to make him a “productive member or society”, filling the absence inside of her with the presence of a true friend. She, on the other hand, is the much-needed proverbial and literal leash to rein in his determination to obliterate just about everything.

Orbiting their tug-o-war is Nani, juggling jobs and balancing delicate financial concerns while dodging the constant affections of David, a surfing fire-dancer who intrudes on the family’s life just enough to remind them they are not alone. Despite the clear threat of an imminent romantic entanglement, the subplot between them stays just that – their romance is never confirmed nor denied, because it is simply not the focus of the story. David is an important support for Nani, but it is clear that Lilo’s eccentricities are far more of a focus for the older sister – for the betterment of the film as a whole.

lilo and stitch disneyBut interesting characters alone do not make this the Disney film. One thing that has been more intrinsically tied to the Disney canon than even princesses or fairy tale remakes is music. Whether they are award-winning scores, or simply a tune that elicits a smile whenever you hear it again, Disney music is as synonymous with the sensation of nostalgia as the films themselves. Every Disney film, is honestly, a quality musical in its own right.

Except Lilo & Stitch.

While it does have its own set of exceptional original songs (from the surprisingly affecting title song He Mele No Lilo to the incredibly heart-warming Hawaiian Roller Coaster surfing montage sequence), the majority of the soundtrack is actually Elvis Presley; in fact, the ‘morals and ideals’ of that era play a rather humorous role in Stitch’s development as a “model citizen”. All musical segments are presented montage-style, without so much as a single note leaving any of the character’s lips.

This should not be misconstrued as an argument that non-musical films are inherently superior to musicals, however it is a noticeable change from the Disney norm and clearly an attempt to be taken more seriously (or at least appear different from the rest). Sure, Lilo & Stitch is science fiction, but despite its fiction this is clearly an attempt at a more realise approach (granted, one with aliens that look like bipedal orcas or dinosaurs and where government agents retire to social services). Few things interfere with suspension of disbelief quite like a choreographed song and dance number.

lilo and stitch disneyPerhaps the most substantial praise of Frozen is directed at its supposedly unique portrayal of romance in animated cinema. First and foremost are the rather blunt critiques of Anna’s “love at first sight” mentality. Characters make it abundantly clear that this mindset is not only childish and immature, but clearly not the purpose of the film. While Norweigan-Cupid’s ice arrows do penetrate by the end, it is a filler that does not represent the true conflict and resolution (though it is used extensively as a blunt red herring).

Nani and David’s relationship is insignificant to the primary story arc (and is never used to distract the audience, it should be noted) because the entire film is about two sisters and their relationship (with a purplish interstellar genetic monstrosity in the mix).

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the film’s usage of villains. Disney has a strong history of producing fascinating antagonists, often with complex origins or motivations. Yet despite this, the underlying message of all the villains is that they are villains – that is, they are actively evil in their attempts to thwart the protagonists, not simply there to create conflict. The typical Disney arc necessitates at least one character who is openly despicable – Frozen is hardly a change from this. While beginning with little more than crude, unintelligent parenting and a vow of mistaken love, the story still saw fit to do a 180 with its token prince charming, haphazardly revealing him as the puppet master, tugging at political and heart strings alike. While the history of the Disney villain has always had its appeal, and while they are often intriguing and surprisingly complex, at the end of the day they are still evil, and evil cannot win.

frozen disneyThis is not the case with Lilo & Stitch, where there is absolutely no villain. In the beginning it is the title protagonist Stitch who is the main antagonist, a creation whose sole purpose for existing is to destroy and not be destroyed. He represents both the immediate threat of planetary annihilation and the inner-conflict of Lilo. His escape is the immediate stimulus for conflict, and his arrival on Earth marks him as the target for interstellar scrutiny. His progenitor, Dr. Jumba, is given a chance to leave prison if he can rein in his abomination. Once Stitch begins the progression towards love and understanding, it is Jumba who becomes the villain, a force trying to take Stitch away from his adoptive family in the same way that Mr. Bubbles is trying to take Lilo. Stitch becomes the sympathetic protagonist as he attempts to reconcile his destructive persona with his newfound affection, but Jumba, his prospective captor, is not the villain either, as he is simply trying to bring his abomination to justice. Both Jumba and Pleakley turn over a new leaf when they realise that Stitch is not as evil as he would seem, and go well out of their way to help the wayward family reunite because it is the right thing to do. From there it is Captain Gantu who becomes the stimulus for conflict. As Jumba fails his mission, a stronger and more capable protector of the peace must be called in – yet his penchant for violence outweighs even that of Stitch’s, and political necessity sees this this situation neutralised.

There are no villains in Lilo and Stitch. Sure, there are antagonists galore – the imminent, ticking time bomb of Mr. Bubbles, Jumba and Pleakley’s misguided attempts to capture Stitch, the looming threat of galactic politics – but not a single one of them is evil. In fact, the resolution of the film is one of all characters coming to terms with their own personal mistakes and misgivings. Jumba and Pleakley stay behind, live with, and help Lilo and Nani. Bubbles uses his apparently substantial government connections to keep the family safe, and even the galactic government itself acknowledges that sometimes rules must be bent to protect what is important. Captain Gantu grudgingly acknowledges the Grand Councilwoman’s decision to allow Stitch to remain on Earth, when it would have been so easy to write him as a rogue agent deserving harsher justice.

Everyone is deeply flawed in the universe of Lilo & Stitch. No one is safe from selfishness, egotism, prejudice, ill intentions, political influence, crassness, ignorance or arrogance.

Yet it is these very same misguided intentions and missed opportunities that brings rich complexity to the characters and their story. Lilo & Stitch is a story about broken people in a broken world – a true story in a true world, despite its fiction.

Truly, Lilo & Stitch is the most progressive Disney film to date.

Anthony Pilloud lives in rural South Korea where he spends his days telling lies to children in the classroom and nights feeding stray cats in between film excursions.

10 thoughts on “Revisiting Lilo & Stitch: Disney and progressive cinema

  1. Pingback: Fantastic cartoons and where to find them - PickYourTrail Blog

  2. Great review! I totally forgot about Lilo and Stitch. However, I think that this review could have been written without all of the Frozen comparisons (I will make no qualms about adoring that film).

  3. An absolutely fantastic and thorough review of my all time favorite movie. I loved your direct comparisons to Frozen, which I agree isn’t nearly as special or deserving as it (or the audience) thinks it is. Partly I think this is a result of the Internet. The Web has become a place for film hype to fester and grow to a bursting point. Honestly, if Lilo & Stitch came out TODAY, it would be far more appreciated simply because the social media of today is significantly more effective at influencing popularity and awareness than it was back in 2002. I also love how you perfectly peg down the relationship between Stitch and Lilo, describing it in such a perfect and eloquent that I have not seen before. All in all, one of the best things I’ve ever read.

  4. This review was so thorough in it’s acknowledgement. I don’t think I’ve read a better review of any Disney film. And I loved reading your assessment, as this is one of my favorite films.

    I absolutely loved it to bits when I saw it. I was fascinated with every second of it.

    Nice to have a reminder of just how special an experience it was.

    Thank-you for your work covering it and for the throw-back!

  5. Man, thanks for reminding me about this film. Lilo and Stitch kind of blew my mind as a kid. It always felt like it had an edge that other Disney films didn’t (and still don’t, really.)

  6. Wonderful analysis, and I can’t agree more. I was very disappointed when finally watching ‘Frozen’, which was much more conservative than I’d hoped. It was still about a skinny princess longing for a man, and the miscalculated husband was not just dull/mediocre/dissapointing, but downright evil – a very unconvincing and forced plot twist. The problems depicted in ‘Lilo & Stitch’, however, ring all too real. It’s the only American animation film coming near the masterful depiction of children behavior by the Japanese Ghibli studio (e.g. in ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ and ‘Grave of the Fireflies’).

  7. I never knew why Lilo & Stich was held in such high esteem by film critics, but your review has helped me to understand why. The lack of a villain is very refreshing, as are the “real-world” problems. But perhaps the biggest issue with the film is Stitch – I remember watching the movie when it came out (I was about 11) and thinking it was really immature, not because of the two sisters, but because of how irritating Stitch was. Maybe that’s what held it back from “classic” status? In addition to all of the other things you mentioned.

  8. I haven’t seen “Lilo and Stitch” since it’s initial release and even then I felt like the Disney marketing machine wasn’t sure what to do with it so it was never lined up to be the next Disney classic. Your post has inspired me to find a copy and watch this movie again.

  9. Like beetleypete (above) says, I have never read such an intriguing review of a Disney film. You have stripped Lilo and Stitch to the bone, there is nothing left untouched.

  10. Anthony, that has to be the most engrossing and thorough review of any Disney film that I have read. I have never seen the film, and have absolutely no desire to do so. For me, Disney never got better than ‘Dumbo’. As for progressive Disney, I will leave that concept to the aficionados of the genre
    Full marks to you for this though, amazing stuff.
    Regards from England, Pete.

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