Disney released Lilo & Stitch on June 21, 2002. With an 86% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and earnings of $273.1 million worldwide, the film was a critical and commercial success. (That’s right everyone – once upon a time, it was considered a major financial accomplishment for a movie from a major studio to earn just $273 million.)
Around the time Lilo & Stitch came out, Pixar (not yet a subsidiary of Disney) was producing instant classics, including Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), and The Incredibles (2004). In contrast, Walt Disney Animation Studios was well past the Disney Renaissance, and was producing films that lacked the magic typically associated with the “House of Mouse.”
(Side note: if you haven’t seen the documentary on the Disney Renaissance, Waking Sleeping Beauty, you need to. Here is the link to its homepage. Go watch it and come back. I’ll wait. Okay, we good? Great. Get to reading.)
Don’t believe me? Consider the animated feature films that Disney released just before and after Lilo & Stitch – Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Treasure Planet (2002), Brother Bear (2003), and Home on the Range (2004). These movies aren’t bad, but they were all fairly generic films that lacked the magic people associate with Disney. And given that Disney Studios would begin producing movies in 3D with Chicken Little in 2005, Lilo & Stitch, along with The Princess and the Frog, is one of the last great animated films from Disney.
More importantly, I love Lilo & Stitch. It is one of my favorite movies, and whenever I buy toys for my friends’ children, I always look for Lilo & Stitch merchandise (shareholders of Disney, you’re welcome – and you all know what that link will take you to.)
With Lilo & Stitch turning 15 this summer, I wanted to take a moment to point out the importance of this film to cinematic history and Disney fans alike. (And yes, I know I’m a few months early, but I didn’t want to wait till June.)
- It had to be changed because of 9/11
I didn’t want to begin on a down note, but 9/11’s impact on popular culture is still being felt to this day. One of the more immediate ways that entertainment companies reacted to the attacks was to edit films that featured the World Trade Center and alter films that had airplanes in dangerous situations.
As Jackson Musker, an animation director at Disney, explains in this clip, Lilo & Stitch had a scene in which a jetliner was being flown passed skyscrapers. This was changed to a spaceship flying near mountains.
- Lilo & Stitch’s Subversive Marketing Campaign
A movie about a girl and her destructive pet alien that was really a metaphor for family is a pretty difficult story to communicate in an advertisement. To get people interested in the film, Disney released a series of “Inter-Stitch-als.” These were commercials that featured classic moments from the Disney Renaissance being interrupted by Stitch.
Given how sacred Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King quickly became after they were released, it was shocking at the time to see Disney using them to promote another film. You can still find these “Inter-Stitch-als” online, but my favorite remains Stitch crashing the dance between Belle and Beast.
[Bonus: AC/DC’s Back in Black is used in the “Inter-Stitch-als.” That’s awesome. As a matter of fact, take a moment to listen to Back in Black. You’ve earned it.]
- It made Elvis cool for a new generation
While Elvis Presley is a timeless musician, every new generation has to find his music on their own. For those young people who sat in the theaters in 2002 unaware of who Elvis was, Lilo & Stitch introduced the King of Rock and Roll to them. With five songs by Elvis on the film’s soundtrack and entire segments centered around him, Lilo & Stitch helped put the spotlight on Presley again.
You know what? You’ve earned a break. Take a moment to listen to my favorite Elvis song.
- Child Welfare System
While many Disney films deal with orphans, few address the legal reality of what it means to lose parents. Though many children will find a safe and loving home with other relatives, it is also common for orphaned children to be placed into the foster system. Cobra Bubbles’ turn from social worker to former CIA Agent with knowledge extraterrestrials is a great joke but his presence in the beginning of the film is a reminder that children like Lilo can find themselves in foster care.
Lilo & Stitch ends on a happy note, but it remains one of the few animated films to address child welfare services and the idea of a family being separated because one person isn’t ready to take care of a child.
- Moana before Moana; Frozen before Frozen
One of the many reasons Moana and Frozen were ground breaking Disney films was that they both deviated from established Disney archetypes. Moana is one of the few Disney Princesses to be a person of color, and her film highlights Polynesian culture, the natural world they are associated with, and Polynesian music. Similarly, Lilo & Stitch built on the unique culture and environment of Hawaii to tell its story. The film frequently highlights the natural beauty of Hawaii, and even features music from Hawaiian singer, Mark Keali‘I Ho‘omalu, and The Kamehaneha Schools Children’s Chorus.
Moana, Frozen, and Lilo & Stitch also share a unique connection in that they are all Disney films centered on female characters who aren’t focused on meeting a man. Specifically, Moana is more concerned with finding herself by traveling while tradition wants to her to stay on an island, and Frozen displaces the “act of true love” from a romantic couple to the bond between two sisters.
In many ways, Lilo & Stitch set the foundation for this. While dealing with the deaths of their parents, Nani, Lilo’s older sister, struggles to find a way to take care of her sister. As a result, the emotional narrative of the film hinges on the sisters being together again.
- Stitch is Awesome
Visually designed to embody the cuteness of a koala and a puppy, Stitch was a one-of-a-kind character. Stitch was instantly recognizable and quotable, making him a personality that audiences immediately embraced. You see, Stitch might have been created to be a force of chaos throughout the galaxy, but his growth over the course of the movie made him the ultimate pet that everyone wishes they could have.
- Body Positivity
One of the things that Disney has been criticized for has been the lack of body diversity in its female characters. With little variation, Disney princesses and heroines have typically been drawn as having slender/petite bodies. In contrast, Lilo is depicted as being an adorably chubby young girl and Nani has a pear shaped body instead of the traditional hour-glass look. As The Baltimore Sun wrote, “[in] Lilo & Stitch, the girl protagonists possess body types more reflective of reality. Here, female images seem diametrically opposed to the Barbie doll-like Ariel from The Little Mermaid and Pocahontas.”
Moreover, the body types of Nani and Lilo aren’t a plot point, rather just who they are. The story doesn’t take from tired clichés of the non-skinny girl upset that she is different but then growing to love her body over the course of the film. That’s because Lilo and Nani are okay with their bodies from the beginning.
When you consider the rise of body positivity and fat acceptance in just the past few years, it becomes clear just how much of an anomaly Lilo & Stitch was when it came out in 2002.
- “Ohana” means “family.” “Family” means “no one gets left behind”
The heart and emotional legacy of Lilo & Stitch, to me, will always be how it depicted family. Centering on two sisters coping with the death of their parents, Disney bravely took a moment to look at how this situation would play out. Instead of a fairy tale in which servants at a castle would take care of them, Nani struggles to find work and worries that she might lose custody of Lilo. The sisters even struggle with the new dynamic of their relationship, where Nani is both Lilo’s big sister and her caretaker. This tension and pain is acknowledged in this exchange:
Lilo: We’re a broken family, aren’t we?
Nani: No… Maybe, a little. Maybe a lot. I shouldn’t have yelled at you.
Lilo: We’re sisters. It’s our job.
Nani: Yeah, well, from now on…
Lilo: I like you better as a sister than a mom.
Lilo: [on the verge of tears ] And you like me better as a sister than a rabbit, right?
Stitch is the narrative embodiment of the turmoil the sisters are going through. Angry and destructive at first, Stitch is only able to find some semblance of happiness when he, like the sisters, come to accept that their new family is small and a little broken, but still good. Similarly, Lilo is at times a brat – an adorable and sympathetic brat, but a brat nonetheless. Just as Stitch grows, Lilo manages to mature throughout the film by embracing and accepting her family for what it is now.
Many films aimed at children that begin with a broken family typically end with the characters in, or at least moving towards, a nuclear family structure. By having Lilo and Nani find happiness in a family including them, Nani’s boyfriend (David Kawena), and a few aliens, Lilo & Stitch was one of the first animated films from Disney to put forth a positive image of a non-nuclear family. It’s an approach to family that few films and shows make.
As Stitch says at the end: “This is my family. I found it, all on my own. Is little, and broken, but still good. Ya. Still good.”
Now it is your turn to speak up!
What do you think of Lilo & Stitch fifteen years later? Are there aspects of the movie I forgot to highlight? Are there scenes that you still love? If so, feel free to comment below.