[7.3/10] There are essentially two constituent parts of Lilo and Stitch. One is a remarkably real story of difficult but well-intentioned children, struggling surrogate parents, and community and cultural institutions that aren’t prepared to deal with either. The other is a zany space adventure replete with slapstick and laser fights and wacky aliens. The former is what sets the movie apart, and makes it feel of a piece with the Pixar films that were coming out in the same era, and the latter is what makes it feel like just another silly cartoon. And the two aren’t an easy fit.
But the film is at its best in those rare moments where it finds the earned connections between them. The parallels between Lilo’s situation and Stitch’s are not subtle. Lilo is a high-spirited young woman, who can’t control her impulses, and has strong abandonment issues after losing her parents to a car accident. Stitch is an alien hybrid, one built for death and destruction and survival, who’s as much, if not more, of a handful, even away from cities and rayguns.
The comparisons don’t stop there. Lilo and her sister Nani are trying to prove to their local social worker that they’re a functioning, if unique family, so that the state doesn't take Lilo away. Whereas Stitch, for his part, similarly has to prove that there’s something good about his found family, something that brings out the good in him, so that the imperious Galactic Federation doesn't take him away.
Naturally, Lilo and Stitch are kindred spirits, and the film succeeds when it explores why. It’s liable to go over the heads of younger viewers, but there’s something potent when the mad scientists who created Stitch wonders what the little alien will do when away from cities to destroy and enemies to fight. It turns out that he finds people who both love him and make him a better soul.There’s thematic heft there, in the idea that in the right environment, even difficult children with different needs can flourish. Say what you will about Lilo and Stitch as a piece of art, but its heart is in the right place.
The film is at its best when it’s exploring the reality of that situation, of Nina having a tempestuous little girl to deal with when she’s just a young woman herself, and of Lilo feeling like the world doesn't want her and struggling to feel love and security when her acting parent is continually harried and her actual parents are in the great beyond. That in turn prompts her to act out and have a shorter fuse, which makes things harder for Nani, which makes things harder for Lilo, and so forth and so on.
Naturally, things only gets easier for Nani when Lilo adopts a new “dog” who is just as tempestuous and destructive and not especially obedient. The film taps into something very real in these scenes of these sisters in a tough situation trying to get by. Lilo and Stitch is remarkable for how much it commits to that. I may have let an expletive slip when Lilo asks her sister “are we a broken family?” because it’s the kind of legitimate, kitchen sink drama frankness and pathos that you don’t necessarily expect from a studio known for wish-receiving princesses and flying elephants.
As a friend put it with regard to the The Babadook it was the scariest thing I’d ever seen -- and then the monster showed up. Lilo and Stitch already tells a great and challenging story about the struggle of two siblings scraping by without their parents, practically and psychologically, even before the little blue furball shows up to provide that thematic parallel.
But this is a kids’ movie, and as much as Lilo and Stitch goes to some bold places, it also has to entertain the kids, so there’s tons of wacky hijinks and other mishegoss that often gets in the way. Again, there’s a worthwhile story to be told of Stitch’s own little arc, realizing he was made for destruction but wanting a family, and not wanting to be left behind, just like Lilo does. The problem is that the movie gets bogged down in the cartoony efforts of the intergalactic model U.N. to try to recapture him.
The least you can say for these moments is that they’re fun to look at. Lilo and Stitch deserves plaudits for its art style and animation, which stand out even in the Disney pantheon. There’s a rounded, more fluid look to the characters and their world in the film, one that uses the film’s visuals marks this tale as something a little less perfect and manicured than its princess-y contemporaries. At the same time, the colors in the movie are gorgeous with hot blues and pinks to capture the Hawaiian atmosphere. And the movement of the characters is just as distinctive, with figures stretching and squishing to make the goofy parts land, while remaining expressive enough to carry the emotion of a scene.
That said, the alien cast becomes a little too goofy, in a way that undercuts the emotion the film is going for. Even Stitch himself walks the line between focus grouped adorable and rabidly annoying (which, in fairness, befits his character). And the outlandish recapture sequences aren’t clever or exciting enough to feel like anything other than colorful interstitials between the meat of the picture.
But even that meat starts to smell at times. In places, the movie’s good thematic intentions run aground on the story it’s trying to tell. For one thing, the film wants us to root against Stitch’s would-be captors. But the only one who could be truly described as evil eventually takes Stitch’s side (for little-to-no reason), while the others seem pretty justified in wanting to contain this creature who, by his creator’s own description, only exists to cause destruction and mayhem.
That goes for both sides of that parallel. You feel for Lilo and Nani and the way they don’t want to be separated, especially when the courteous but severe social worker seems to show up at the most inopportune times possible. Obviously they’ve had to deal with enough separation and the sense of being “left behind” in that family. But the other side of the coin is that it seems clear that however hard she’s trying, poor Nani is in over her head and unable to give Lilo the care she needs, which makes it sad but hard to argue against things when it looks like the social worker’s made an adverse decision.
Still, Lilo and Stitch makes that moment a harrowing one, and its reversal equally as heartening, because it’s rooted in the authentic feelings of connection and loss between Nani, Lilo, and Stitch. Some of the film is a bit of a chore, as you’re slogging through one wacky trip or another. But when the movie touches on those real challenges, real moments of sibling fighting and affection, and real family bonds, of both the blood and chosen variety, it’s something truly transcendent and unique in the Disney canon. Those moments are more than enough to make up for the times in which it’s like any other kids’ film.
It's probably weird that I think about this movie probably on a daily basis. I make references to it AND NOBODY KNOWS! This movie is my own personal inside joke :D I love it so much!