When the Disney Renaissance came to a close at the end of the 1990s, Disney films began to dwindle in both quality and box office returns. Though this post-renaissance era housed a couple of good entries into the Disney library, most of the Disney animations at the time were largely forgettable. But if there’s one movie from this timeframe that Disney should still be proud of, it’s 2002’s Lilo & Stitch. Not only was it Disney’s biggest success in these years, but more importantly, it’s a charming, entertaining and unique entry in the Disney canon.
Unlike most Disney films, Lilo & Stitch is neither a fairy tale or a story revolving around anthropomorphic animals. Instead, it’s a lighthearted piece of science fiction combined with a contemporary Hawaiian setting.
Lilo is a young Hawaiian girl who, unlike most Disney heroines, is a bit of an oddball. She lives with her older sister Nani, after their parents passed away. Lilo has weird interests and isn’t much of a people person, which makes her a refreshing change of pace to most Disney characters. Stitch, meanwhile, is a genetic experiment created by an alien “evil genius” named Jumba Jookiba. Designed for nothing more than destruction and mayhem, Stitch’s often chaotic behavior contradicts his cute appearance.
The fact that the film’s two titular characters are such odd-ducks for a Disney movie is a large part of Lilo & Stitch’s appeal, but better still is that the film dedicates a lot of time to the stories behind these characters, instead of simply using their weirdness for laughs and calling it a day.
After Jumba is jailed by the Intergalactic Federation, Stitch (AKA Experiment 626) manages to escape custody and inadvertently winds up in Hawaii, where Lilo adopts him and names him Stitch, believing him to be a dog. Meanwhile, the Intergalactic Federation grants Jumba the opportunity to regain his freedom in exchange for the capture of his Experiment 626, so he is sent to Earth along with the federation’s “Earth expert” agent Pleakley to bring Stitch into custody. Together Jumba and Pleakley provide the film’s best comic relief.
The movie is a whole lot of fun: It has a sharp sense of humor that’s slightly edgier than usual Disney fair. The animation is also a bit more cartoony than what you usually see in Disney’s feature films, but it’s nonetheless fluid and colorful, and only adds to Lilo & Stitch’s uniqueness. And the film features a number of Elvis Presley songs (seeing as the movie emphasizes both Hawaii and aliens, including Elvis into the mix seemed almost unavoidable).
Where Lilo & Stitch shines brightest though is its characters. The character relationships and backstories are a bit more fleshed out than what you see in a lot of Disney movies, and they all win you over with their entertaining personalities. Lilo & Stitch even has some genuinely touching moments involving Lilo and Nani, as Nani tries to take care of her sister with the absence of their parents. Even Stitch gets some sentimental moments as he discovers his empty purpose and longs for something more meaningful. The movie dedicates a good chunk of time introducing its two titular characters and setting up how they come together, giving the audience plenty of time to care about them before the main plot even kicks in.
Unfortunately, while Lilo & Stitch dedicates a great deal of time introducing the characters – and has a fittingly energetic and sweet finale – there are some story elements in the middle of the film that can feel a bit rushed. There’s one moment in particular when things start looking bleak for Lilo’s future with Nani that occurs immediately after a more lighthearted and comical montage. You can’t help but feel there could have been a scene in between that might have made the shift in tone feel more organic and less rushed.
All things considered though, it’s easy to forgive Lilo & Stitch for any of its pacing quirks in the middle act considering that, as a whole, it’s a good natured, entertaining and sweet movie that strays from a lot of Disney’s norms in fun ways.
Disney was quick to cash-in on Lilo & Stitch’s popularity in a time when Disney movies weren’t particularly popular. Disney followed-up the film with a trilogy of forgettable straight-to-video sequels and a decent animated TV series, as well as a Japanese anime that followed a different continuity. But while Lilo & Stitch as a franchise may not have always been consistent, going back and watching the original is still a delight. Its offbeat sense of humor and memorable characters make it one of Disney’s more original and fun animated features.