19 November 2012

Disney Daze: Week 42: Lilo & Stitch

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

The idea of a film being the result of one person's pure artistic vision is more often than not a complete pipe dream. Nearly every aspect of a film's production necessitates collaboration. Such vaunted auteurs as Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese made their greatest films from other people's scripts. Even control freaks like the Coen brothers need to rely on others to photograph, score, and of course, act in their films. Nowhere is the idea of auteurism more unheard of than in animation. Feature length animation requires a legion of artists working in concert, alongside the efforts of writers, voice actors, singers, composers, and yes, studio heads, to bring a picture to the screen. After Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, no film in the long line of Disney productions comes as close to being the work of a singular mind than 2002's Lilo & Stitch.

The film was commissioned by Michael Eisner, who after breaking the bank on increasingly lavish productions like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, wanted to make a simple, inexpensive film just as Walt Disney did back on Dumbo in the 1940s. Storyboard artist Chris Sanders pitched an idea that he had abandoned as a potential children's book in the 1980s. Sanders would be credited on the final film as co-writer, co-director, character designer, and voice of the titular alien. This singularity would be to the film's ultimate success as it possesses the surest, purest personality of any Disney picture. The film was made with a relatively small crew out in Orlando, a continent away from most of the meddling upper management who were much more focussed on the studio's other 2002 release, the epic Treasure Planet.

Lilo & Stitch begins in a far-flung galaxy as a mad scientist is on trial for creating an indestructible monster in his lab, a creature designed solely for destruction. We are introduced to a grand galactic federation populated with a wealth of alien designs, some faintly recalling the extended Star Wars universe as well as seminal Disney characters. The criminal creation, named Experiment 626, is brought before the tribunal. He is a small blue creature resembling a koala with four arms and antennae. The council decides to lock up the scientist and strand 626 on a deserted planet but 626 escapes in a ship and crash lands on the island of Kaua'i on a tiny planet called Earth. 

On Kaua'i we meet a young Hawaiian girl named Lilo who is mischievous and remarkably, refreshingly odd. She is a loner who takes pictures of the pasty and bloated bodies of tourists and feeds peanut butter sandwiches to fish. She lives with her older sister Nani up in the mountains. Of her missing parents she later explains that, "it was raining and they went for a drive." Nothing more needs to be said. The economy of this backstory is one example of the film's strengths, as is the depiction of the troubled little girl's personality. Unlike your run-of-the-mill child protagonist, who is usually precocious and wholly unreal, Lilo can at times be a brat, a goofball, and a frightened, defenseless little kid, oftentimes within the same scene. Her peculiarities are idiosyncratic enough to feel organic and entirely real. When she gets upset at one of the kids in her dance class for calling her crazy, Lilo lunges at her and shockingly punches the girl in the face. It is a visceral moment all-together unseen in an animated feature but all too common on playgrounds and in schools. 

Lilo is in danger of being taken from her sister and put in an orphanage by the uniquely-monikered social worker Cobra Bubbles, played by Ving Rhames as if this were a sequel to Pulp Fiction. In fact, the character's design may or may not have been an homage to Quentin Tarantino, as Bubbles possesses the slick suits, sunglasses, and gold earrings of Marcellus Wallace. After a rather disastrous meeting between Bubbles and the sisters, Nani tries to make amends with Lilo by taking her to the pound to pick out a puppy. Lilo instead chooses 626, whom she renames Stitch. The blue alien was picked up after being run over by not one, but three semi-trucks. Meanwhile, the galactic federation has sent the scientist and an underling to Earth to capture Stitch in exchange for the scientist's freedom. The two stalk Lilo and Stitch in ridiculous disguises as human tourists. The remainder of the film shows both Lilo and Stitch learning responsibility as they deal with the bonds of family, even a family that is cobbled together from unloved parts like theirs.

The animation is stellar throughout the film. The designs of the characters are charming and original. How does one adequately convey how gosh darn adorable both Lilo and Stitch are? Their soft, rounded features and complimentary body sizes make for an overwhelmingly cute pair. The watercolor backgrounds were the first at the studio since the 1940s, and they give the Hawaiian locale a wonderfully expressive design. Meanwhile, the limited use of computer animation, saved mostly for two action scenes involving spacecraft, are integrated well into the film's delicate palette while retaining the feeling of advanced alien technology. 

Nearly every element of Lilo & Stitch is a resounding winner. The depiction of Hawaiian culture is more fully realized than the recent films set in far-flung locations like Asia and Australia. The island culture permeates every scene of the picture. Alan Silvestri's score is easily one of the best of the latter day Disney pictures, incorporating traditional Hawaiian melodies with a helping of classic Elvis Presley tunes, including "You're the Devil in Disguise" and "Heartbreak Hotel". The only songs that fail, including a histrionic take on "Burning Love" by Wynonna Judd, are thankfully relegated to the closing credits. 

There a dozen precious little moments in Lilo & Stitch that give it a sense of gravity and life. Lilo borrowing two dollars from Nani so she can pay for Stitch herself, Stitch taking a moment to browse Lilo's book collection before stumbling upon The Ugly Duckling, a depressed Lilo locking herself inside and listening to records on the floor. The film manages to be heartwarming, poignant, and consistently funny. The gags are unexpected and fluidly executed. A sterling example of the film's distinctive personality comes from a brief shot of Stitch walking along the beach dressed as Elvis and carrying a ukulele. That goofy little gag would not work in any other film because it only belongs here. It makes complete sense in this weirdly wonderful world.

Lilo & Stitch was a success with critics and moviegoers alike. Creator Chris Sanders was given the reins to helm another one of his original ideas, this time about a spoiled television dog who gets stranded in the desert and learns some much needed life lessons. After Michael Eisner's ouster, the new head of feature animation, Pixar's John Lasseter, viewed early footage of the film and did not like the direction the production was going. Sanders was resistant to changing his vision and was soon removed from the project. He subsequently left the studio and he soon found success alongside his Lilo & Stitch co-director Dean DeBlois with their DreamWorks animated feature How to Train Your Dragon. His work on the half-completed film known as American Dog was scrapped and the final film, now entitled Bolt, was but a faint glimmer of his wild and original vision.   

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