With Disney’s new streaming service rollout right around the corner, I’m hoping the world rediscovers some hidden gems from the entertainment superpower. I’ve struggled with whether or not to get Disney+ myself – based mostly on my reticence to support the corporate stranglehold of a media empire that seemingly seeks to control all our entertainment – but I can’t argue with the value subscribers will get out of the service, even if there are a few notable movies and TV shows missing from the launch list (all the Muppet movies are on there, but no “Muppet Show”? Come on, Disney!).
If you do get Disney+ and are looking for a good overlooked movie to watch or revisit, there are many options for you, but one underrated title that’s been close to my heart for the last 17 years is “Lilo & Stitch,” which is secretly one of Disney’s funniest, strangest, most affecting films.
I’ll admit, it’s odd to describe as “overlooked” a film that grossed $273 million globally and spawned multiple spin-off TV shows and direct-to-DVD sequel films, but “Lilo & Stitch” occupies a strange place in the Disney canon. It belongs in the generation of animated movies that came out directly after the “Disney Renaissance” of the 1990s, a last gasp of 2D animated output before the studio turned its primary focus toward computer generated imagery. It’s in the class of movies like “The Emperor’s New Groove” or “Treasure Planet,” strong outings that never had the widespread cultural impact of films like “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Lion King.”
As such, it seems like the only people who really resonate with “Lilo & Stitch” are people about five years younger than I am, those who were at a prime age to grow up with the movie and absorb its various spin-offs throughout their childhood. Almost nobody my age or older seems to care, despite my best efforts to convince them of the film’s genius.
For those who have forgotten or never knew to begin with, “Lilo & Stitch” takes place on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i, where young Hawaiian girl Lilo (Daveigh Chase) is struggling to adjust to life with her sister Nani (Tia Carrere) as her legal guardian after their parents died in a car accident. Their lives are upended when a destructive extraterrestrial genetic experiment crash lands on the island; mistaking the creature for a dog, Lilo takes him in and names him Stitch (Chris Stewart, who also directed, wrote and was an animator for the movie). Lilo and Nani must now demonstrate that Nani is a competent enough guardian for her sister while juggling the havoc caused by Stitch, who is, unbeknownst to them, being hunted by a pair of hostile aliens.
The first thing to know about “Lilo & Stitch” is that it’s gorgeous, among the best-looking and most visually distinctive movies in Disney’s history. The backgrounds are painted in watercolor, a lovely throwback to the earliest Disney features. The animation, meanwhile, is pleasingly rounded and bulbous and just a touch unsettling, modeled after Stewart’s personal drawing style rather than Disney’s house style of the time.
The animation isn’t the only thing that’s a little unsettling, however. “Lilo & Stitch” is a bit darker than many other Disney films, given the greater realism in its stakes – “girl might get put in foster care” is a bit more relatable than “girl is imprisoned in castle with talking appliances” – and its strange sense of humor, which frequently delves into non sequiturs much grimmer than that of normal kiddie fare. Though Stitch’s predilection for destruction is a constant throughout, there’s perhaps no better example of this sort of humor than the first two scenes introducing Lilo. The first features her punching a classmate who mocks her for offering food to a fish Lilo believes controls the weather, while the second showcases her acting out to spite her sister in front of their social worker – complete with a deadpan delivery of “my friends need to be punished” as she attempts to perform a voodoo curse. These kinds of jokes set the tone for the movie, working excellently with the animation to convey the at-times bleak world the characters inhabit without miring the entire production in melancholy (in addition to the sisters’ parental tragedy, they’re also trapped in an economic catch-22).
However, that’s not to say there are no emotional moments. One of the things that’s caused “Lilo & Stitch” to endure in my esteem is its emphasis on ‘ohana, the Hawaiian word for family – blood relation or otherwise. The three central characters are broken in their own unique ways: Nani is unprepared to operate as a fully functional adult parent, Lilo is willful and acting out in the wake of her parents’ death, and Stitch is engaged in a constant struggle with his inner demons. All three individually acknowledge their brokenness and believe themselves unworthy of love because of it. And yet, the movie argues that love, patience, and the unconditional acceptance a family can provide can help anyone arrive at the place of belonging they need. That meant one thing to me as a weird 14-year-old kid, and it means something else to me now as a 31-year-old parent. It’s a powerful message, no matter in what stage of life you find yourself.