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Lilo & Stitch
2002 - PG - 85 Mins.
Director: Dean Deblois, Chris Sanders
Producer: Lisa M. Poole, Clark Spencer
Starring: Daveigh Chase, Tia Carrere, David Ogden Stiers, Kevin McDonald, Ving Rhames, Jason Scott Lee
Review by: David Rolston
   

Bad dog!
With an opening sequence that would be at home in the Star Wars universe, we find the Galactic Federation grappling with the dilemma of “Experiment 626”, a nearly indestructible creature, able to move objects three thousand times its size and endowed with the mind of a supercomputer. It’s only instinct -- to destroy everything in its path.

“So it is a Monster.”

“Just a little one” admits his creator, Dr. Jumba Jookiba, peevishly.

Banished to a barren asteroid, the slippery creature escapes, crash landing on an unimportant planet called “errr Yarth”. At first the federation hopes he will crash land in the ocean, for you see, his molecular density is so great, he will sink to the bottom of the ocean and drown, but instead he lands by chance on a tiny island named Kauai.

Lilo & Stitch is so beautifully designed and full of colorful unexpected characters, one inevitably questions what audience the film was made for. So much of the dialogue and plot requires a sophisticated understanding of science, technology and popular culture, that it’s hard to imagine how this could play to children --- and yet it does wonderfully.

The character design and look of the film are nothing less than what you’d expect from Disney in the modern era, with distinctively vivid landscapes that capture the wild beauty of Kauai through the use of Watercolor, a gambit not attempted on a Disney film since the production of Dumbo. The color rich backdrops suit Sanders' iconically stylized characters, and the seamless animation enhanced with the tasteful application of computer generated visual effects is stunning.

Lilo & Stitch is bursting at the seams with visual invention and imagination, from interplanetary travel to the inner space of surfing off the Hawaiian coast, the camera zigs and zags and dollies artistically, reflecting an encyclopedic knowledge of cinematic convention on the part of its animators. But we've come to expect nothing less in the digital age. None of the technology would really mean that much were it not for the depth of characterization in the wonderful script by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, who found inspiration and soul once the fateful decision was made to move the location of the film from the mainland to the islands. While visiting Hawaii in preparation of the script, their tour guide taught them about he concept of "Ohana" which emerged as the central theme. The combination of sci-fi elements and cultural exploration gives the film a fresh organic vibe that sustains it from start to finish.

The script is anchored by snappy dialogue and uniformly wonderful voice performances. The relationship between older sister Nani (a surprisingly assured Tia Carrera) and younger sister Lilo (Daveigh Chase) provides the nucleus of the film around which its more fanciful elements are free to bounce like free radicals, taking the plot in surprising and entertaining directions.

Nani is fighting a losing battle to retain custody of her troubled adolescent sister Lilo. It’s no surprise that Lilo is mercurial as she wrestles with her grief at the loss of her parents in a car accident. She’s preoccupied with Voodoo, the acceptable dietary intake of fish, and her need for the friendship of the other little girls who avoid her like sailors avoid a Jonah. She finds solace in a tribal dance group and Elvis Presley records, but it’s not much for a sad lonely little girl with an active imagination.

Desperate to help Lilo equalize her combustibility and occupy her unbridled restless curiousity, Nani impulsively decides to acquire a dog for Lilo from the local animal shelter. In a scene typical of the ways Deblois and Sanders subtly establish their characters in keenly observed moments, when Nani goes to pay the license fee, Lilo demands to do it instead, turning immediately to her older sister to ask her for a loan of the two dollars she had already handed to the clerk. Parents with young daughters the world over will relate.

Of course the animal Lilo has brought home isn’t a dog at all, it’s Experiment 626, hiding from those dispatched to capture him. Lilo instinctively names him “Stitch” despite his penchant for occasional outbursts of anger and destructiveness, much like her own, and the plot unfurls dramatically as the two outcasts learn about each other on the way from one catastrophe to the next.

The themes touched upon in the story are varied and interesting: from the cultural values of native Hawaiians to the relative importance of nature vs. nurture, to the spiritual yearning of those who find surfing a means for communing with nature, to the meaning and value of familial ties. A blank canvas, Stitch awkwardly bonds with his new companion while experimenting with guitar, Elvis impersonation, Surfing, and the existential question of who he is, where he came from, and what his purpose in life should be.

David Ogden Stiers of M.A.S.H fame breathes life into the hilariously Strangelovian Dr. Jumba, Ving Rhames provides suitable menace and authority as Cobra Bubbles a hulking former CIA operative turned social worker and Kevin McDonald of Kids in the Hall fame steals numerous scenes as the one eyed Agent Pleakly, the federation’s expert on the flora and fauna of Earth and caretaker of its ecosystem. The bumbling Pleakly has been dispatched to insure that the extraction and capture of Stitch doesn’t endanger a delicate balance between the endangered Mosquito population and the lowly humanoids upon which they feed. Any one of these three characters could steal a lesser film, but in Lilo and Stitch they share equally in the bountiful opportunities created for them to provide comic relief from the intrinsic pathos of the tragic if understated back story.

It seems that there’s an expectation that every animated family film needs to start with the playbook of Rogers and Hammerstein, with set pieces revolving around some circa 1950’s Broadway musical version of the world. Is the supposition upon which this unspoken rule of animation seems to rest, that somehow children are predisposed to enjoy entertainment that includes show tunes? Lilo & Stitch manages to avoid the pitfalls of this thread worn formula by weaving its music directly into the fabric of the plot. Elvis Presley recordings are featured throughout, further reinforcing the Hawaiian locale, and supplemented with original songs and music by composer Alan Sylvestri that capture the essence of native Hawaiian music in a variety of textures. There are several wonderful musical sequences which complement and move the plot along rather than grind it to a halt like so many other animated films seem to do. A sequence where Nani’s boyfriend David takes Nani, Lilo and Stitch surfing is particularly impressive.

Lilo & Stitch is a masterfully executed and richly imagined film that can be appreciated on many levels. The film mixes comedy, suspense, action and adventure in a contemporary way, but I suspect when compared to other recent animated films like the Toy Story series, Lilo & Stitch will hold up far better, thanks to its sharply observed thematic resonance. Greater than a sum of its parts, Lilo & Stitch deserves a place among the animated classics, perhaps the first that can truly be considered part of the digital age, and while certainly appreciated upon its release, it is that rare film which is actually underestimated, not unlike its two diminutive heroes.
 
Movie Guru Rating
An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant.
  4.5 out of 5 stars

 
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