Lilo & Stitch
2002, PG, 85 min. Directed by Dean Deblois, Chris Sanders. Voices by Daveigh Chase, Ving Rhames, David Ogden Stiers, Tia Carrere.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., June 21, 2002
Unless I'm wildly mistaken, Lilo & Stitch will end up disappointing both its target audience and the Walt Disney Co. bean counters. Still, here's respect to Chris Sanders and Dean Deblois for a rare, if obscure achievement: a movie that can make me question my most cynical notions about modern filmmaking. For example, my assumption that all major-studio animated films are planned, manufactured, and marketed to be nothing less than blockbusters, and that the industrial blueprint for this process is as immutable as the recipe for Little Debbie Snack Cakes. My greatest tribute to Lilo & Stitch's makers is that they somehow got this quirky, funky-looking, aggressively retro little feature made in a financial climate where any one of these qualities would generally suffice to torpedo a project. L&S actually seems to go out of its way to avoid universal appeal. Its setting, for example, is a surprisingly believable rural Hawaiian town full of blue-collar folks who eke out subsistence livings catering to obnoxious mainland tourists. Among these locals are a pair of orphans, emotionally troubled grade-school hellion Lilo (Chase) and teenage sister Nani (Carrere), who are scraping dysfunctionally along in their decaying family home. With a menacing child-welfare worker (Rhames) threatening to separate the pair, Nani decides to shore up her surrogate mommy credentials by buying Lilo a dog. Unfortunately, the bizarre-looking pooch Lilo selects at the pound turns out to be no canine at all. In reality, he's Experiment 626, a wall-eyed, snaggle-toothed, relentlessly destructive, fugitive alien who's been genetically programmed to trash everything in his path. Fittingly enough, the two miniature loose cannons wind up bonding à la E.T. the Extraterrestrial, with Lilo introducing 626 (renamed Stitch) to the joys of vintage Elvis albums, hula dancing, and the Hawaiian ideal of ohana -- family. These small moments, which include none of the obligatory catchphrase-laden dialogue and labored hipness we've come to associate with kids' entertainment, are so low-keyed and grounded in recognizable human emotion that the absence of the expected gonzo style is literally jarring at times. There are some requisite action scenes when Stitch's mad-scientist creator tries to recapture him, but they're almost apologetically inserted. Amazingly, and to their everlasting credit, Sanders and Deblois seem far more interested in prosaic matters like making the interior of a poor family's house look believable, and in crafting genuinely clever satiric lines for their oddball characters to voice. There's no trace of wearisome CGI wonders, no market-tested outrageousness, no hope whatsoever of the lucrative creative/marketing “synergy” we've come to expect from the Disney juggernaut. But that's more than okay by me. The story may go disappointingly squishy and sentimental at the end, and the musical score may be charitably described as forgettable, yet Lilo & Stitch has all the earmarks of being someone's personal vision, as opposed to a team-developed “concept.” This movie is by no means a classic in absolute artistic terms, but as a reaffirmation of all but forgotten verities it's an unqualified success.