In the vein of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”, a broken family bonds over a small, albeit ugly, yet endearing little alien. This is true for Disney’s “Lilo & Stitch”, but the alien in question is essentially a Gremlin, prone to destructive tendencies and speaking high pitch nonsense.
The movie opens with the trial of alien mad scientist Dr. Jumba, who for the sheer hell of it created the alien biological super weapon dubbed, Experiment 626 (Chris Sanders). He’s sentenced to prison and his creation, which only knows how to be vulgar and destroy things, is to be exiled on a desert planet. He escapes and winds up on earth, landing in Hawaii. Lilo (Daveigh Chase), the other half of the titular pair, is a very small child from a broken home. Her parents are dead and she lives with her older sister (Tia Carrere) as her guardian, though they struggle to prove to a social worker that this is the best situation for her.
The basic plot is that the alien weapon, named “Stitch” by Lilo, is hiding out with her as he’s hunted. That’s all there is to it, for the real heart of the movie comes from the developing of the family unit, unconventional that it is. Stitch learns to be more than a simple weapon; Lilo gets a chance to bond with a creature even more messed up than she is.
One of the movie’s strengths comes from the heartbreaking and sympathetic situation Lilo and her sister live in. Her sister is clearly not up to the task of raising her as a single mother. It’s too big a job and she can hardly hold on to a real one as it is. The constant threat of the social worker, added to the emotional and social problems of Lilo, and there’s plenty of room for drama. Lilo gets into fights, can’t relate to other children, and is basically an outcast at a very early age. Stitch’s arrival doesn’t help too much, since all he does is mess things up for everyone. As the story unfolded, even with all the goofy slapstick gags with the aliens, I was interested and concerned about the fates of the two sisters. They’re a likeable pair of characters and I was genuinely invested in their problems. In the end they’re resolved quickly and somewhat too easily, but the overall journey is handled well.
Much like “The Emperor’s New Groove”, this movie has a very small scale. It’s an attempt to keep things light and simple, with nonthreatening villains, no galactic threats despite a galactic council’s involvement, and stakes no bigger than the separating of a very small family. In that sense it also has the feel of a television cartoons series, one that this movie did easily transition to. It’s all very cute and contained in its specific style, set to a few original songs and a lot of classics from Elvis Presley. Why? Because why not. He’s the King.
Where it does keep things big is in the animation. Whether it’s the massive spaceships and planets in the opening section of the movie or the colorful and surprisingly realistic view of a small town in Hawaii, the animation is crisp and fluid. Detailed and bright backgrounds add a sense of reality to the setting, contrasting with the notion of wacky aliens hiding in the trees. All the characters have charming designs and a lot of personality. Stitch can barely speak, mostly making silly noises and talking in gibberish, but he still expresses a lot over the course of the story.
“Lilo & Stitch” is a fun and charming little story with enjoyable characters. It doesn’t overplay its hand trying to sell the theme of family, nor does it allow the comedy to overwhelm the ideas at play.