Lilo & Stitch

on June 21, 2002 by Wade Major
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   After wandering in the desert for some six years following the departure of Jeffrey Katzenberg, Disney's cel animation division seems to have once again found its way. Some were even ready to write the future of cel animation off entirely as computer-animated successes made in collaboration with Pixar ("Toy Story," "A Bug's Life" and "Monsters, Inc.") soared while in-house old-school efforts ("Atlantis" and "The Emperor's New Groove") died. But "Lilo & Stitch" is perched to change all that. Smartly drawing from a wide variety of popular animated traditions -- including those of Disney, Warner Bros. and even DreamWorks - "Lilo & Stitch" manages to please both adults and children on their own terms without compromising the underlying integrity of the story. It's a clear attempt to target the "Shrek" crowd with many of the same tactics, though "Lilo & Stitch" manages the feat with even greater acuity than the DreamWorks smash.

   A thinly-veiled variation on "E.T." by way of "Gremlins," "Lilo & Stitch" centers on the relationship between an outcast Hawaiian girl named Lilo (voiced by Daveigh Chase) and a rambunctious fugitive alien that she names Stitch (voiced by co-writer/co-director Chris Sanders) and adopts as her "dog." Each has their share of problems. Lilo is rejected by her peers and causes no end of trouble for her elder sister Nani (voiced by Tia Carrere) who, since the passing of their parents, has assumed her guardianship.

   Stitch, meanwhile, is literally running for his life. The result of an illegal genetic experiment, Stitch was engineered with only one aim in life -- to destroy everything he touches. But, before Galactic law enforcement officials can launch him into exile, he escapes to Earth and crashes in Hawaii.

   Though sweet in appearance -- sort of like a bug-eyed blue Koala -- Stitch is anything but sweet in disposition. He's E.T. with the temperament of the Tasmanian Devil, a hyperactive Gremlin with a demolition complex that cannot and will not be stemmed except, possibly, by the unconditional love of a lonely little girl.

   As with most Disney pictures of this sort, the underlying themes all center around the sanctity and healing qualities of family - Stitch has none, and Lilo and Nani used to have one. And, if they can outwit Stitch's pursuers and a child welfare officer named Cobra Bubbles (voiced by Ving Rhames) who wants to take Lilo away from Nani, they just might have a chance. Thankfully, writers/directors Dean Deblois and Chris Sanders are careful to stay clear of saccharine overkill. Despite the abundance of sentiment in the broader story, individual scenes are exceedingly funny and clever, delicately seasoned with a welcome assortment of quirky little touches, such as Lilo's Elvis Presley fixation, that Disney movies of the past have typically eschewed.

   Like more and more animated efforts, "Lilo & Stitch" is rated PG, presumably because the brief spaceship sequences early in the film were deemed too intense to award the film a "G." That questionable call notwithstanding, "Lilo & Stitch" is considerably gentler than anything in "The Lion King" or "Bambi," both of which feature death scenes far more troubling than anything here.

   In the end, however, nothing testifies to the success of "Lilo & Stitch" more than the courage with which it attempts to reinvent the genre, daring to break free of the musical paradigm on which decades of Disney films relied. "Lilo & Stitch" lives up to the uniqueness of its characters by adhering to no preexisting criterion -- perhaps the only movie in recent memory that actually practices what it preaches. Voices: Daveigh Chase, Jason Scott Lee, Tia Carrere, Kevin McDonald, Ashley Rose Orr, Ving Rhames, Kevin Michael Richardson, Chris Sanders and David Ogden Stiers. Directed by Dean Deblois and Chris Sanders. Written by Dean Deblois and Chris Sanders. Produced by Clark Spencer. A Walt Disney Pictures release. Family/Animated. Rated PG for mild sci-fi action. Running time: 85 min

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