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Disney's Magic Returns: Lilo & Stitch

There's a lot to like about Lilo & Stitch! Jerry Beck explains in his review of Disney's long-awaited summer release.

Here comes the happy family now  Lilo, Nani and Stitch. All images © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Here comes the happy family now Lilo, Nani and Stitch. All images © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Lilo & Stitch is a perfect family film -- and great entertainment for all ages. And yes, it's a "traditional, hand drawn, 2D" feature length cartoon, utilizing everything Disney animation does right in its best efforts. If this is the last shot traditional animation artists have before all Hollywood cartoons go CG, they couldn't ask for anything better to justify their stand. This is personality character animation done right; caricatured human beings we can relate to, way-out space creatures to laugh at and literal flights of fancy visualized with the flair that hand drawn, hand painted animated cartooning can claim as exclusively its own. Lilo & Stitch has humor, heart, style and art -- with the highest standards we've come to expect from Walt Disney Feature Animation.

Back to the Basics

After last year's disappointing Atlantis: The Lost Empire, many pundits, this reviewer included, thought Disney may have lost its way. And that misstep, in the summer of Shrek and prior to a string of successful CG features (Monsters Inc., Jimmy Neutron, Ice Age), didn't bode well for the house that Mickey and the Seven Dwarfs built. But Disney hasn't completely given up on its traditional cartoon animation (yet), and its smartest move here was to place its trust in Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois (co-directors & co-writers) giving this film a cohesive singular vision that's been missing in Disney features of late.

Chris Sanders (right) and Dean DeBlois were the creative visionaries behind the film.

Chris Sanders (right) and Dean DeBlois were the creative visionaries behind the film.

One of my biggest Disney complaints in recent years is that the character designs in each film don't mesh. Atlantis is an extreme example where the characters are from different movies and the storylines are bifurcated and inconsistent. Lilo & Stitch is wonderfully old-fashioned in its simple straightforward storytelling, charming characters and strong motivations. Not only did Sanders come up with the original idea for the film, but he worked in close collaboration with DeBlois to write the screenplay, storyboard virtually all the scenes, record Stitch's dialogue and direct the film. The duo functioned as their own heads of story as well, expanding on a creative partnership that began with Mulan. This process ensured that the filmmakers' vision would remain constant throughout the many stages of production.

"We wanted to make a film that focused on the simplicity and warmth of the relationships," DeBlois explains. "Dumbo and Bambi were our two biggest influences because of the focused story and simplistic art direction. They had a purity and nostalgia that we loved. Some recent films have pushed to achieve technical marvels and emphasize dimension. We liked the idea of abandoning some of that in favor of emphasis on the character development. We wanted to slow down the world a little bit and do away with the epic set pieces and the throngs of people so that we could deal with two characters and how they interact with one another."

Lilo teaches Stitch all about

Lilo teaches Stitch all about "the King."

Ugly Ducklings

Despite the film's marketing, it is really about the relationship of Lilo, an odd little Hawaiian girl and her sister Nani, a struggling 20-something adult woman unprepared to juggle the responsibility of caring for Lilo and managing her own life's affairs. Along comes "Experiment 626," who, crash-landing on Kauai, is mistaken for a dog and adopted by the lonely Lilo, who promptly renames him "Stitch." Pursued by intergalactic forces, Stitch is forced to learn right and wrong, and most importantly the meaning of "family," incognito on Earth. Meanwhile, Lilo uses her new pet to play, make mischief and imitate Elvis. Both are "ugly ducklings" yearning for acceptance by their own kind, who come together in their own world.

"We wanted to break some of the storytelling conventions," says Sanders. "One of the things we set out to do from the very beginning was to let go of the idea of good and evil. That's great if you're doing a fairy tale, but we wanted this film to have a different feel. Our characters have more shades of gray; they aren't all black and white. They embody human frailties. Lilo, Stitch and Nani are neither good nor bad. They're a mixture of those things like every human being. As a result of that, we got a more subtle and interesting mix of character relationships."

The comedy comes from many places. Stitch's view of Earth and its inhabitants is one source. Designed to be a monster, he's plopped into a suburb with no appropriate city to destroy. One hilarious sequence has him build a replica of San Francisco out of toys and materials in Lilo's room, then demonstrates what he would do to it. The reactions of Lilo and Nani to Stitch's behavior provide the animators with ample opportunity to draw facial expressions and body language that say more than any cheap one-liner.

The timing and character animation is superb at every turn.

The timing and character animation is superb at every turn.

Great Animation

"Animating Lilo was the most fun assignment I've ever had," observes Andreas Deja. "It was also the most complex. She is a character who has big issues. She thinks, she plots, she has deep emotions and you don't express those things with big-action poses. There is a tremendous degree of subtlety. My first drawings were very active so I had to learn how to scale them down. I spent a lot of time getting just the right expressions or looking for that one pose that could tell the story. That's hard to do in animation because our medium is about motion and movement. It's always trickier to animate the more subtle characters and Lilo is super subtle.

"The reason why Lilo & Stitch is such a unique project is the depth of emotions that the characters have and the rich, interesting, unconventional and quirky relationships between them," adds Deja. "It's different from other material and has a very spontaneous feel to it. I have two sisters, a younger and an older one, and the relationship between Lilo and Nani rang true for me. I remember back home how the two of them were always yelling at each other even though they loved each other. These are real characters."

Cobra Bubbles and Jumba and Pleakley are just three supporting characters worth admission.

Cobra Bubbles and Jumba and Pleakley are just three supporting characters worth admission.

The Icing on the Top

The supporting cast is also filled with hilarious characterizations. Two words: Cobra Bubbles. The first sequence with social worker Bubbles is a classic bit of modern slapstick comedy. "Cobra Bubbles is a great example of a character who is complex," says Chris Sanders. "He represents a major threat to what's left of Lilo's family, but the audience realizes that he isn't trying to separate them out of bad or evil intentions. He's simply doing what he's supposed to be doing. We're very proud of the fact that the film has a powerful emotional impact beneath its deceptively friendly look. In a sense it's very much like Bambi where you don't suspect that its going to be as powerful as it is when you first look at it."

Two more words: Jumba and Pleakley. The two aliens sent to retrieve Stitch are cleverly designed and their actions never feel forced or cliched. Even minor characters -- a frog or a sunburned tourist for example -- get big laughs doing practically nothing.

We are so used to CG now, that this film's simple flat artwork is a treat for the eyes. The refreshing watercolor backdrops remind one of classic 1930s and '40s Hollywood cartoons (to my esoteric eye, they closely evoke the elaborately painted scenics by Shane Miller at Famous Studios in the 1940s). CG is, of course, used in the film but mainly in the alien scenes and the space chases (perhaps an unconscious comment on CG being an invader to traditionally animated films?).

The only missing element is an original song score -- but who's complaining? We've had enough cartoon musicals during the 1990s to last us a while still. The Elvis Presley tracks are an appropriate substitute.

Lilo & Stitch is the second feature film to be produced at Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida. The team of 300 artists, animators and technicians based there handled all aspects of the production, with the exception of digital painting. They did good. Real good.

Is there anything about Lilo & Stitch I didn't like? No. Go see it. It's a great film.

Jerry Beck is an animation producer and cartoon historian who is simultaneously developing a show with MTV Animation and writing a book for Harry N. Abrams Publishers. He also has a cool Website at www.cartoonresearch.com.

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