A Study in Disney: ‘Lilo & Stitch’ (2002)

| February 7, 2022

Aliens and Family Values: Lilo and Stitch | Tor.com

This is not going to be a popular opinion, but Lilo & Stitch seems to function much better without Stitch.

Allow me to explain.

When it comes to dealing with other cultures, Lilo and Stitch seems to be the first Disney feature to actually it right.  The movie takes place in and among the people of Hawaii, particularly on the tiny island of Kaua’i and deals very specifically with issues of the people who live there.  This isn’t a movie that sees the plight of the native Hawaiians through the gaze of white characters . . . well, sort of, it was written by two white men, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, but the development of the main characters is seen from the point of view of Hawaiian born Nani Pelekai and her younger sister Lilo.  19-year-old Nani has been the legal guardian to her 6-year-old sister Lilo after the death of their parents.  Left alone, she is forced to take on the adult role, working a series of jobs to stay afloat, and has to deal with the difficulties of taking care of a child.  This while dealing the persistent threats (and comic misunderstandings) of a burley and short-tempered social worker who deems Nani an unfit guardian.

The insular story of Nani and Lilo is not uncommon, but the circumstances of their situation are chaired in the plight that native Hawaiians have been facing ever since the United States government seized the Hawaiian islands in the late 19th century, and curiously enough, to which President Bill Clinton was signing a formal apology at the same moment that Lilo and Stitch was in the planning stages.

If The Emperor’s New Groove was a separation of the culture in which it took place, then Lilo and Stitch was an attempt to at least acknowledge the issues and the culture of the indigenous peoples living there.  Nani is native to Kaua’i and very wisely, the movie does not divorce her or Lilo from their culture nor from the bullying influence of The United States government.  Consider the scene late in the film in which Lilo and Nani are about to be separated by child protective services and Nani sings to Lilo the song “Aloha ‘Oe” (Farewell to Thee), a song written around 1877 by Hawaii’s last monarch Queen Liliuokalani.  After Hawaii was forcibly annexed into The United States, the song became a mournful reminder of what the natives had lost, tied into which is Nani who sings the song in her grief over the inevitability of losing her sister.

The problems of being a native Hawaiian in a tourist hot spot was the focus of one of the deleted scenes in which a tourist rudely yells at Lilo, “Hey!  Speak English?  Which way to the beach?!”  And a moment later a white tourist with a camera points out “Hey look!  A real native!”  This scene points out the racism hoisted upon the indigenous people by white tourists.

Lilo and Stitch has a curiously nervous construction that may or may not have to do with the legacy of Pocahontas.  The story is a fusion of two plots – a family drama and a sci-fi comedy – that might work separately but don’t seem suited for one another as a whole. 

On the other side is a science fiction comedy plot about an alien malcontent who comes to Earth, is mistaken for a dog and is adopted at the pound by Lilo.  Given the name Stitch, he is a destructive force everywhere he goes due largely to the fact that he was created as a biological weapon of mass destruction and the fact of his basic misunderstanding of every facet of life on Earth.  Adopted as the pet of Nani and Lilo, he disrupts their lives and often brings the two dangerously close to separation.

It may be an unpopular opinion, but given the development of the relationship between Nani and Lilo, the Stitch character may not be necessary.  Actually, he’s kind of annoying.  He’s destructive, violent and really fuses to the family plot like ice cream on prime rib.  If the filmmakers were to extract Stitch from the plot all together, it would have no negative bearing on the story at all.

The family plot, minus the alien, is one of the deepest and richest human dramas that anyone, Disney or not, ever devised.  The larger plot, of course, deals with Nani and her constant frustration over keeping her family together, but the deeper plot involves Lilo who illustrates a fascinating psychological study of a child dealing with grief and loneliness.  She is an odd girl with odd habits.  She has difficulty relating to other kids – in this case the other girls in her hula class.  She takes photographs, loves the music of Elvis Presley, and visits the ocean regularly to feed her fish Pudge a peanut butter sandwich.

Lilo is young, only six years old, and has created a world for herself that seems dependent on filling the space left by the death of her parents.  Her name, in Hawaii can be interpreted as “Lost” or “Generous” and the curious thing about Lilo is that she displays both of these qualities.  She is lost in the world.  Nani takes care of her, but she spends much of her time alone.  Yet, she is also generous, determined to rebuild a family by incorporating anyone else who feels lost and alone (i.e. Stitch).

Family is a bonding agent for Lilo especially at the moment in her life when it seems that the social worker will break it apart.  She pulls together two things culled from what she remembers of her parents – that her mother was a great hula dancer (Lilo strives to continue this tradition), and that her father constantly made references to ‘Ohana” which means family.  Further, it is an extended term to mean community of family, blood-related or adopted – again, something else that Lilo strives for.  Her personal habits, in many ways, are a means of connecting with her absent parents, of culling together their activities, their philosophies, their personal effects in a way that keeps the family alive even though the parents are no longer around.

Bereft of a “normal” family unit, Lilo feels alone in the world and strives to make every effort to normalize her life to the same place that she and Nani were in when her parents were alive.  She doesn’t fit into the world anymore – she doesn’t really fit anywhere.  She has weird habits, she doesn’t get along with the girls in her hula class and she gets little to no support from her older sister who is too busy taking care of both of them to give her the proper attention.

So, how does the alien plot fit into this?  Well, curiously enough it doesn’t; the plot about Stitch – an experimental killing machine who is set free on Earth and tears up everything that he sees plays at odds with the story of Lilo.  Yes, Stitch sees the error of his ways through the pains of Lilo and Nani but, in truth, it seems to exacerbate an already difficult situation.  How well does it play out when, under the threat of being torn apart by Child Protective Services, Stitch enters their home and messes things up to the degree that half of their house is burned down?  Isn’t that adding insult to injury?

Realizing fully that the movie was bought and sold on the strength of the Stitch character, and initially inspired by him – writer, director and Stitch voice Chris Sanders conceived of the creature for a children’s book back in 1985 – it is hard to imagine the movie without him, but personally, it may have been a little better to let these be separate stories.  A family drama dealing with the problems of two sisters living under threat of separation sounds tailor-made for Disney but it is a problem for marketing.  Lilo and Stitch, as an end result, is a problem of dual identities.  Does the story work just as well without Stitch?  Does it work at all?  That’s a puzzle.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.