It plays and feels like an old Warner Bros.’ Merrie Melody or Looney Toons offering to such a degree that it’s hard not to suspect that something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers must have taken place at the Disney studio. Despite the fact that co-writer, co-director Chris Sanders (who also gives voice to Stitch) was one of the committee of writers on Mulan, there’s very little traditional Disney here. The key word is “committee,” by the way. Never has a Disney picture been less of a committee effort. Mulan, for example, boasted no less than six writers; The Emperor’s New Groove had five and so did Aladdin; last year’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire lay claim to a whopping seven scribes. Lilo and Stitch features two writers — Sanders and co-director Dean Deblois — who also broke with studio tradition by doing their own storyboards, making it probably the most personal film ever to emerge from Disney. Sure, it has more “heart” than the Warner Bros. cartoons, and it offers a message and the expected Disney gloss. But it’s edgier than Disney: Its message is nontraditional to the point of being nearly as subversive as its humor, and — for those of us who aren’t utterly entranced by the Disney approach to cartoons as vehicles for ersatz-Broadway show tunes — it’s blessedly free of songs in that sense. The standard Disney concept of edgy is to toss one outrageous character into a traditional mix. Lilo and Stitch comes across like it was made by one of these outrageous characters. The genius of the enterprise lies in the fact that it looks more like a traditional old-style, hand-made cartoon than anything in ages. Its use of gorgeous watercolor background paintings is an approach not used by the studio since Dumbo in 1941, giving the movie just the right touch of cozy familiarity to make its myriad departures from the sort of film we expect it to be more accessible. The filmmaking itself and the world the story takes place in is quite deliberately retro (to use an overworked and obnoxiously superior term). There’s even a scene where Stitch watches a bit of the 1950s sci-fi film, Tarantula on Philco-like TVs — they feature the brand name “Retro” — in a store window (the better to subvert the formula). It may look like a film that takes place in some imaginary idealized 1950s, but Lilo and Stitch doesn’t itself idolize its apparent era, nor does it offer anything like a reactionary message about the supposed superiority of some “simpler,” “better” time. The story itself is a departure of some note. Stitch, as originally presented, is the most uncuddly character imaginable. He’s the four-armed, ill-tempered, salivating creation of “idiot scientist” Jumba (voiced by David Ogden Stiers), whose entire programming is geared toward destruction (his specialties being backing up sewers, screwing up traffic lights, and stealing everyone’s left shoe). He’s a full-scale outcast, along the lines of the Frankenstein Monster, that nobody wants until he escapes from his intergalactic prison and finds himself on a Hawaiian island, where he’s tossed into a dog pound and adopted by a little girl named Lilo (voiced by Daveigh Chase). Lilo is almost equal to Stitch in terms of being an outcast prone to destructive acts (the film carefully structures her outbursts as mirror images of Stitch’s). She’s a lonely orphan being raised by an older sister (voiced by Tia Carrere), who has prayed to be sent a friend — “one of your nicest angels” — and instead gets Stitch. (The parallel to James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein is almost certainly not accidental.) Yes, it’s predictable that Stitch will at first be a disaster, but will ultimately transform into something else. What’s not predictable is the bizarre and inventive path the film will take to get there. Hip and savvy, Lilo and Stitch is a delightful repository of pop culture references (in the world of the film Elvis is the last word in civilization) and just plain funny gags, dialogue, situations, and running gags. And, yes, it’s going to end happily, but in a very unorthodox manner that requires the viewer to seriously rethink what family means in anything but retro terms (“This is my family. It is small and broken, but it is good”). It’s effective, thought-provoking, and moving. A lot of the film’s humor may be lost on younger children, but not so much that it won’t constantly entertain them. Forget that juggernaut of expert marketing, Scooby Doo, and head straight for this remarkable movie. This is what a family movie should be.
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