Having betrayed the reliable commercial viability of their conventional animated features with such runaway hits as The Emperor's New Groove and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, it seemed in 2002 that Walt Disney Pictures was poised to cede their financial future to Pixar, whose staggering success with Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. had revealed the vast box office potential of computer-generated animation. In a last-ditch effort to reverse the trend, Disney decided to completely discard their previously winning formula and concoct an entirely different sort of animated feature. The result was Lilo & Stitch, a totally unique entry in the Disney canon and a film which seems just as bizarre and original today as it did in the summer of '02.
The story concerns an orphaned Hawaiian girl named Lilo (voiced by Daveigh Chase, previously seen in Donnie Darko), whose behavioral problems at school and at home provide a constant headache for her older sister, Nani (Tia Carrere). Their difficult circumstances are compounded by a social worker named Cobra Bubbles (played to the hilt by Ving Rhames), whose suspicions of neglect are increased by Lilo's penchant for sabotaging Nani's attempts at discipline. Enter into this happy picture an extraterrestrial biological experiment (number 626, to be exact), who escapes captivity aboard a spaceship several solar systems away and crash-lands in Hawaii. Though featuring classically cute cartoon features, 626 is nothing less than a perfect killing machine, a genetically designed genius whose sole function is to wreak havoc and not be destroyed. Run over (but hardly injured) by a truck on the highway, he is mistaken for a dog and taken to the pound, where he falls into the loving arms of Lilo the very next day.
On the trail of 626 (coincidentally renamed Stitch by Lilo) are Jumba (David Ogden Stiers), his creator, and Pleakley (Kevin McDonald), the galactic agent assigned to make sure his recovery goes smoothly. The odd-couple dynamic of the pair, along with their complete ineptitude at fitting in on Earth, provides the film with much of its humor. Despite their repeated attempts to capture Stitch and return him to the Galactic Council, Jumba and Pleakley prove to be no match for his tactical cunning. Thus, Lilo is free to train her new companion to speak, play guitar, and appreciate Elvis Presley, blissfully unaware of his true nature. Only after Jumba and Pleakley are fired for their incompetence do they drop any pretense of wanting to keep Stitch alive, propelling the film toward its clever and action-packed conclusion.
In spite of what could be construed as a calculated attempt to make the strangest kids' movie possible, Lilo & Stitch succeeds not only as a lustrous popcorn flick, but also as a genuinely touching fable about the importance of individuality and the fluid nature of family. Just as Lilo and Nani struggle to overcome the loss of their parents, Stitch struggles both to define himself and also to acclimate to his alien environment. As he becomes more self-aware, he realizes that he is a total outsider in his adopted home, an epiphany that leaves him all but despondent. His only solace is found in the unwavering love of Lilo, Nani, and their friend David (Jason Scott Lee). Together, these four face off the invasive presence of the Galactic Council and Social Services and assert their right to define themselves as a family unit. When Stitch rejects his title of "Experiment 626" at the end of the film and embraces the name he was given by Lilo, he validates his own right to belong. It is an important lesson for both the children and the adults in the audience who struggle to find their place in the world.
The fact that a children's movie about space aliens, surfing, and Elvis was not only greenlit but also budgeted at $80 million makes its ultimate success all the more satisfying. Disney obviously knew that they had an oddball on their hands: the teaser trailers for the film featured characters from such past hits as Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast being interrupted by Stitch's rambunctious behavior, and the posters showed Stitch surrounded by a cadre of glowering Disney characters, as if to suggest that he was an unwelcome addition. The tagline: "There's one in every family." But the gamble paid off: in the best underdog tradition, Lilo & Stitch defied expectation and became a hit, grossing over $145 million domestically during its June-to-November run. The good showing may have been aided by the fact that the film's Elvis fixation was perfectly timed, the summer of 2002 having been saturated with Presleymania in honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of the King.
Perhaps in an effort to play up its unorthodox nature, Lilo & Stitch was also augmented with several innovative animation techniques. It was the first animated Disney feature since Dumbo to have utilized watercolor backgrounds, and one of the few to have integrated live-action footage. By nature of its galactic and Hawaiian locales, it also marked one of the only times since 1942 that Disney had produced a feature-length animated film without having recycled footage from Bambi. Four years after Lilo's release, Disney closed their last remaining hand-drawn animation studio to focus solely on computer-aided animation. Stitch's adventures on Earth heralded the beginning of the end of an era.