Nostalgia, Elvis Presley, and Surfing | Lilo and Stitch at 15

As technology advances, it can be disastrous for those who are slow to adapt. Change can leave some wishing for simpler times. Released in 2002, Lilo and Stitch could be interpreted as a nostalgic look back for Walt Disney Animation Studios.

The studios had produced a string of hits in the 1990s but this golden age had already reached its end. Computer animation was proving itself with audiences and critics. Separately, Pixar and Dreamworks had delivered commercial successes with Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and Shrek. What did this mean for the future of hand-drawn animation?

An original story about the importance of family, Lilo and Stitch was the 42nd animated feature film produced by Disney. Its theatrical trailers relied on a series of parodies of older Disney properties: Stitch replaces Simba in the opening sequence of The Lion King, flirts with Princess Jasmine from Aladdin, then ruins Belle and Beast’s dance by dropping the chandelier.

Since then, the blue koala-like Stitch has continued to have cross-over appeal. The character features regularly in Disney merchandise. Perhaps it’s the enormous oval eyes and the ears reminiscent of Dumbo that make the character appear so cute. Yet appearances can be deceptive.

Lilo and Stitch opens with the trial of Experiment 626, a creature who may be cute and fluffy but has been genetically engineered to be a destructive monster. Considered an abomination, Experiment 626 is sentenced to exile. However, he escapes from captivity by stealing a spaceship then crash lands on the Hawaiian Islands. In a neat twist, Earth is a protected wildlife preserve and the aliens have dismissed humans as a primitive species whose only value is as a food source for endangered mosquitoes.

In many ways, Lilo and Stitch has a nostalgic feel to it. This partly results from the style of the drawing which used round shapes and soft edges to make the characters more visually appealing.

On Earth, Experiment 626 is stuck on a small island with no large cities to damage. We’re told he’d steal left shoes and mess with street signs. Instead, he meets Lilo, an Elvis obsessed kid who feeds peanut butter sandwiches to fish. She’s an eccentric outsider struggling to fit in with her peers. In an attempt to ease Lilo’s isolation, her sister Nani takes her to adopt a puppy. Except Lilo doesn’t choose a normal dog. She picks Experiment 626 who she names Stitch. The dog shelter sequence sets up the rest of the film. Stitch causes mayhem, evades his pursuers and terrifies most humans. Lilo tries to encourage him to be good. Gradually, he transforms from a destructive monster into a lovable rogue. But, his behaviour threatens to have disastrous consequences for Lilo and Nani.

In keeping with many Disney films, Lilo and Stitch is set in the aftermath of parental death. The sisters are both grieving for their parents who died in a car accident. Nani is struggling with her role as a guardian for her little sister. While the film never doubts Nani’s good intentions, it does show her panic and desperation with the situation. Her frustrating search for work will resonate with anyone who has ever faced a difficult job search. The family’s woes don’t end there. They are also being monitored by a social worker, Mr. Bubbles, who is concerned that Nani cannot provide a stable home for her sister.

Since this is a Disney film, there is a happy ending and a message about the importance of family. As the much quoted lines from the film say: “‘Ohana’ means family. Family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.”

In many ways, Lilo and Stitch has a nostalgic feel to it. This partly results from the style of the drawing which used round shapes and soft edges to make the characters more visually appealing. The decision to use water colour backgrounds was also a nod to Disney’s past. The technique hadn’t been used regularly since Dumbo was released in 1941. It meant that animators had to be re-trained. The decision to use water colour backgrounds was also motivated by financial concerns. Lilo and Stitch had been greenlit with a limited budget and the water colour backgrounds were a cost saving measure. Still, this didn’t go entirely to plan. After the September 11th attacks, several scenes had to be re-written to avoid possible resemblances to the events in New York.

The soundtrack features a lot of Elvis Presley’s well-known songs. In one scene, Stitch is used as a speaker while ‘Suspicious Minds’ plays on Lilo’s vinyl record player. This isn’t a big Disney musical and the selections from the Elvis back catalogue enhance the nostalgic feel of the onscreen action. One original song ‘Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride’ with its Polynesian influences plays during a surfing scene.

While it has a message about the importance of family, Lilo and Stitch avoids anything too controversial. There’s a couple of brief hints about the importance of tourism to the Hawaiian economy. Most of the humour comes from visual gags mixed with nostalgic throwbacks. Stitch builds a replica of San Francisco so he can destroy it like monsters do in older movies. It’s all quite sweet and gentle in its own way.

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On its initial release, Lilo and Stitch achieved a decent commercial return with over 250 million dollars grossed at the international box office. The film was also nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar losing out to Spirited Away. There were a string of straight to DVD sequels and TV series.

However, it’s impossible to re-watch Lilo and Stitch without considering its place within the Disney catalogue. As mentioned, the film was released during a period of declining fortunes for Walt Disney Animation Studios. It’s unlikely that Lilo and Stitch could have halted this downward trend. Unfortunately, worse was still to come. Also released in 2002, Treasure Planet, the Robert Louis Stevenson classic novel set in space, was a commercial failure.

In the early 2000s, the momentum was with Pixar Studios and Dreamworks Animation. While Walt Disney distributed Pixar’s films, its inhouse animation studio did not grasp the game-changing nature of its rival. In 2006, Walt Disney bought Pixar for over 7 billion dollars. I’d argue that Disney’s animation studios didn’t really regain its creative energy until 2009’s The Princess and The Frog.

Lilo and Stitch is indeed a wistful nod to a lost past. But it’s also a sweet and appealing story. Sometimes, it’s necessary to go back before moving forward.


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