Just when I thought that Disney had passed the torch of traditional animation over to DreamWorks, along comes Lilo & Stitch, in which they grab it back with a vengeance. This is an astonishingly lovely, tremendously moving, outrageously funny film, with a beauty that arises from a meeting of the past and the future, combining diverse elements in a way that should feel cheap and gimmicky but doesn’t. It’s just about glorious, actually, in its wonderful originality, widely emotionally engulfing like no Disney film has been since The Lion King.
There hasn’t ever been a Disney character like Stitch, a bounding ball of destruction and mayhem, an alien experiment gone awry and loose on planet Earth. With the wry cunning of a 5-year-old human male and a capacity for havoc to match, he is nothing so much as a little kid in disguise. Though he’s programmed is to destroy, he poses as a weird dog so Lilo will adopt him from the animal shelter in which he’s been imprisoned. She, an outcast among the elementary school set, appreciates the strange little creature with the electric blue skin and the ferocious teeth (he’s hidden — don’t ask how — the extra two of his six legs so he’ll fit in, but it doesn’t quite work). A Frankensteinian monster, Stitch stifles his initial instinct to toss her into the water like a pretty flower, so to speak, and sticks close to Lilo (the voice of Daveigh Chase: Donnie Darko) and her grown-up sister, Nani (the voice of Tia Carrere) — this little family is good cover for hiding from those who’ve tracked him from home with the intention of bringing him back.
Physically, Stitch (the voice of cowriter/codirector Chris Sanders) is a talented animator’s dream: he hisses like a cat when angry, skitters across ceilings like a spider, and — in the most hilariously unexpected thing I’ve seen on film in a long while — folds himself into a sphere and rolls away with he’s in a snit. And his robust, chunky, Technicolor alienness contrasts sharply with the realm he’s landed in: Hawaii, but a Hawaii from a 1940s Disney flick. Not only have Sanders and his writing/directing partner Dean Deblois eschewed all computer animation here (reminding us how solidly organic hand-drawn is in the process), but they’ve harkened back to the first golden age of Disney toons, using gorgeous watercolor backgrounds, a technique that hasn’t been used in 60 years. Flowers and jungles and beaches and ocean waves leap off the screen, softly, luxuriantly vivid. The humans are stylized, too, rounded and lush and wide-eyed and so beautiful you want to hug them. All of the characters — including also Stitch’s creator, mad-scientist Jumba (the voice of David Ogden Stiers), a bear of a demented alien; timid, octopuss-like Earth expert Pleakley (the voice of Kevin McDonald: Galaxy Quest); and an MIB social worker with the unlikely name of Cobra Bubbles (the voice of Ving Rhames: Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within), sent to check up on the orphaned Nani and Lilo — are so real and so immediate, both through the stunning animation and the sincere voice performances, that you feel as if you’ve known them forever.
Lilo & Stitch avoids feeling gimmicky because all its little quirks are woven into the story in such a way that to pull them out would unravel the tale. Lilo is an Elvis fan — she likes the sad songs, like “Heartbreak Hotel,” which suit her general moodiness — which leads to much delightful use of snappy 50s pop music instead of the standard Disney characters-express-their-inner-feelings tunes. No one sings here, and nothing is missing. We get it all just fine — from Lilo and Nani’s knock-down fights to Stitch’s discovery of the concept of ‘ohana, or family (“No one gets left behind, or forgotten”), even the running motif of happily making do with the family you’ve got, which runs through many Disney films, feels fresh and unforced.
So by the time Stitch decides that Lilo and Nani are a family that is “little, and broken, but good,” I was sobbing tears of joy, not just for Lilo and Nani and Stitch — the little monster really grows on you, dammit — but also for the return of a Disney toon that could make me feel this way. Thanks, Disney, for pulling it off again.