Lilo & Stitch is a raucous, quirky adventure, focused on little girl Lilo (voice of Daveigh Chase) and alien creature Stitch (Chris Sanders, also writer and director of the film). Lovably unconventional, they have some trouble fitting in with their peer groups — regular kids in Lilo’s case, multi-limbed aliens in Stitch’s — their coming together to form a new kind of family makes this film an unusual one in the Disney pantheon.
For one thing, it opens far away from earth. Mad scientist Jumba Jookiba (David Ogden Stiers) stands before a Galactic Federation tribunal, accused of a terrible crime, the unethical bioengineering of a new species. Next to him, trapped in a jar, bounces his dangerous creation, Experiment 626, designed to destroy everything with which it comes in contact. Jumba is expelled to an outer space prison, but 626 escapes to earth, Hawaii, specifically. Jumba is released on the condition that he recapture 626. He’s accompanied by another, decidedly wimpier alien, the one-eyed Pleakley (Kevin McDonald), sent along to ensure that Jumba reports back to Galactic Federation HQ.
Meanwhile, 626 ingeniously disguises himself as a dog, and soon finds himself adopted from the local animal rescue by Lilo, who renames him “Stitch.” She sees something in the demonically aggressive, very toothy creature, stemming from their shared loneliness.
Even before she meets Stitch, you see that Lilo, an orphan living with her older sister Nani (Tia Carerre), has “issues.” She wants to be friends with the other girls in her hula-dancing troupe, but can’t bring herself to conform to their girly standards. So, while they all have matching, beautifully outfitted Barbies, Lilo (without the money to buy toys) has made her own doll, stitched together out of rags, with an extra-large head that she explains as the result of bugs laying eggs in its brain. This story does not sit well with the other girls, and they mock Lilo’s difference from them.
Her sense of alienation appears to be exacerbated by the fact that she’s a huge Elvis fan, not the expected musical taste of a little girl, manifesting sadness and feelings of alienation not by whining or pouting, but by lying on her floor singing along to “Heartbreak Hotel.” This scene is fairly heartbreaking, suggesting just how lonely Lilo is — none of the other little girls want to listen to Elvis.
Bighearted Nani does her best to help her sister cope with her various heartbreaks, but she’s not quite ready for parenthood — especially when the child she must care for is as energetic, eccentric, and rebellious as Lilo. Nani is part responsible parent and part bossy, irksome older sister. She works nights at a tourist “luau” restaurant, decked out in what tourists want to see as “native” garb (her preferred “native” garb is t-shirts, cutoffs, and hiking boots). Much like her sister, headstrong Nani is no angel; they are family, after all.
And “family” is a central theme in Lilo & Stitch. In order to remind each other where their priorities lie, the sisters repeat the phrase, “Ohana means family, and family means nobody gets left behind.” But unlike some other recent animated flicks (Ice Age, for example), Lilo & Stitch is not determined to reinforce the usual nuclear unit, but instead, celebrates a nontraditional grouping, one culled from surprising sources, including Stitch’s alien-lab origins.
The film offers up various lessons about difference, using stereotypes to point out that while pineapples and hula dancing are important to Hawaiian history and its tourist industry, they are only part of a rich amalgamation of cultures on the islands. Tourists appear as if they are aliens, to be tolerated and appreciated, depending on their attitudes. Most of the white folks who appear in the movie tend to do so from a distance, as extras, seen mostly through Lilo’s hobby of photographing squishy, light-skinned tourists on the beach. She tapes her photos to her bedroom wall, as if they are lab specimens to be observed.
At the same time, native Hawaiians here recognize and know how to use a stereotype when it’s useful. For example, one scene shows a jeans-wearing Hawaiian truck driver, with a hula dancer bobble doll on his dashboard. In another contrast, Lilo’s troupe clearly works toward preserving a cultural tradition, while the restaurant where Nani works features the more crassly commercial version: leis and grass skirts and cocktails served in coconuts, catering to tourists who have no idea of that culture from which such “exotic” elements arise.
Actually, the film’s most “exotic” and alien character is not even a space alien; it is Mr. Cobra Bubbles (Ving Rhames), the large human social worker who checks in on Lilo and Nani. Bubbles is black, wears a suit, sunglasses, and carries himself with a stiff, Men In Black-sh air. His severity is both funny and strange when contrasted with Lilo and Stitch’s mischievous natures, not to mention Nani’s seat-of-her-pants parenting style. Even the other visitors from another galaxy, who come in all colors, shapes, and sizes, seem more in tune with the bright colors and spontaneity of the islands than Mr. Bubbles.
But in this movie, it’s not how you look that makes you part of a family. Instead, what’s important is how generously you view your world and the people in it. Ultimately, Bubbles, Nani, Lilo, Stitch, Jumba, and Pleakley find they have more in common that meets the eye. And for viewers who know that families and affection come in a variety of shapes and sizes, Lilo & Stitch is a welcome change from the usual fare.