REMEDIAL SF 101: Lilo & Stitch

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Just to clarify--if it's got space aliens in it, it's science fiction.

Which brings us to Lilo & Stitch.

What, you don't think so?  "It's a Disney movie!" you protest.  Well, try this on for fit, Thomas:

A genetically-engineered space alien designed to be an unstoppable force of destruction escapes its prison and steals a rocketship, crash-landing on Earth, where it is befriended in spite of itself by a lonely little girl who thinks it's a dog.  Her patience and faith in him change him from a rotten little monster into a heroic figure as he saves the girl from the aliens who had been sent to recapture him.

Sure sounds like science fiction to me. And as an added bonus, there's hula.

In case you don't have children, or just felt that animated movies were beneath your dignity, and so managed to miss this gem, here's the synopsis:

An intergalactic jury is convened to pass judgement on Dr. Jumba Jookiba, a four-eyed scientist (literally) who was caught creating mutant monsters.  Highly destructive, virtually unstoppable mutant monsters.  One of these creatures, known as Experiment 626, is presented as Exhibit A at the trial, and scandalizes the room with vulgar displays of naughtiness.  626 is condemned to exile, and Dr. Jookiba is sent to prison.

However, 626 manages to break free, and comandeers a police space ship.  The red one.  Under hot pursuit, he wreaks havoc on the fleet before jumping into hyperspace.  His escape is not entirely complete, because his ship sustained damage, and he crash-lands on a planet known to be an intergalactic wildlife sanctuary for the protection of the endangered mosquito, which prevents Police Captain Gantu from simply blowing the planet and 626 out of the sky.

At first is seems that 626 is going to land in the middle of an ocean, and thus, drown, but--against astronomical odds--a tiny chain of islands appears, and he makes landfall on one of them.  Because retrieving 626 is going to be a delicate operation, the Grand Councillor of the Galactic Federation makes a bargain with Dr. Jumba--his freedom in return for the mutant.  Jumba is sent along with Agent Pleakley, the "expert" on the mosquito sanctuary, and ordered to keep a low profile and not to interact with any of the sapients on the planet, which is called "EEarteh."

626 survives the fiery crash, and with a plasma gun in each of his four clawed hands, proceeds to make his way through the Kauaiian jungle, only to be run over multiple times by some tractor-trailer trucks bringing sugarcane to the mill.

He comes to in a dog kennel, where the other occupants of his cage are cowering in terror in the corner.  He finds the flimsy chain-link little challenge and is about to scuttle away when he is narrowly missed by blasts from Jumba's plasma rifle.  Realizing that he is safe as long as he has a human as a shield, 626 returns to the building where he draws in his more alien appendages and pretends to be a dog.  A very eccentric dog.

He is soon adopted--for two dollars--by Lilo, a little girl who is having trouble coping since the death of her parents in an automobile accident.  She gets onto fights, disobeys her sister, and emos-out to Elvis Presley records. 

To call Lilo "imaginative" would be an understatement; she's more like Calvin with a mean streak, and in the horribly ugly and weird ("He was dead this morning!") 626, she finds her Hobbes.

Or more appropriately, her hob-goblin, because it is immediately apparent to everyone except Lilo that there is something very, very wrong with that strange blue dog.  He's kind of like a sociopathic Snoopy, and rather than providing Lilo with companionship, he makes the situation worse for her older sister Nani, who has been trying to run the house and take care of her sister.

 When Jumba and Pleakley, wearing the thinnest of human disguises (think glasses and wigs) try to grab 626--now called Stitch--at the tourist luau where Nani works as a waitress, the resulting melee causes her to lose her job.  To make matters worse, a scary new social worker arrives and warns Nani that she needs to get a job, or else he will have to remove Lilo from their broken home and place her in foster care.

It does not help that Stitch is a destructive force of un-nature, which he graphically proves to Lilo by meticulously constructing a cityscape out of books and toys, then acts like Godzilla and smashes the city to bits.  You see, his "programming" is to find the nearest large city, and destroy it, but since Kaua'i is an island, and Stitch can't swim, he's trapped with nothing to do but be obnoxious. 

Lilo begins to think that maybe her puppy isn't normal after all, and pretty much confirms this when she discovers that he can act like a gramophone if his claw is placed on a record and his mouth is opened.

Lilo tries to teach Stitch to behave, by offering Elvis Presley as a "model citizen" for him to emulate.  By now, Stitch is starting to bond with Lilo, and tries to comply with her coaching, which culminates in a performance at the beach that begins with Stitch impersonating the King, and quickly devolves into Stitch behaving like King Kong when tourists start taking flashbulb photos of him, which irritates him into rage.  The beach gets trashed.

Later, while Nani's friend David tries to cheer them up by taking them surfing, Jumba makes an attempt to grab Stitch underwater and winds up catching hold of Lilo as well.  Stitch tries to save Lilo, but to Nani it looks like Stitch is trying to drown her, and she kicks him away.  Lilo is inconsolable, and David goes back to find Stitch, who is unconscious but alive.  From the shore, the social worker, Cobra Bubbles, has seen the altercation, and tells Nani that he will have to remove Lilo from her care.

Stitch, realizing he's done nothing but create trouble for the girls, sadly leaves, hoping to find a family of his own.

The next morning, David comes to tell Nani that he may have found her a job at the grocery store, and she orders Lilo to lock the door and stay put while she goes to try to secure it.  In the meantime, Jumba and Pleakley find Stitch in the woods, and pursue him back to the house.  The Grand Councillor had fired them, so Jumba is no longer restrained by the Galactic Federation's rules of engagement, and arrives shooting his gun.  While he and his creation wrestle, Lilo calls Cobra and tells him aliens are attacking her house.

In town, Nani gets the job at the grocery store, only to watch a fire truck barrel past and turn up her road.  She races back to the house to see it engulfed in flames, and Cobra putting Lilo into his car.  While she tries to stop him from taking her sister away, Lilo slips out of the car and runs into the woods, where she finds Stitch, who shows her that he, too, is an alien.

They are caught by Captain Gantu, who had been despatched by the Grand Councillor after she fired Jumba and Pleakley, but as Gantu prepares to lift off for home, Stitch wriggles out of the containment pod into which Gantu had dumped them, and promises Lilo he will rescue her.

Nani, who witnessed the capture, demands that Stitch explain himself to her, realizing now that he isn't a dog and that he can talk just as Lilo said he could.  Just then Jumba and Pleakley ambush Stitch and are triumphantly taking him away in cuffs, until they realize that Nani has seen them and can make things difficult for them.  So they have a change of heart and decide to help her try to get Lilo back, using their much-larger space ship to pursue Captain Gantu. 

They succeed in liberating Lilo, mostly due to Stitch's indestructable strength and cunning, but are themselves disabled in the battle and crash into the water.  Then the Grand Councillor shows up to capture Stitch personally, but when she learns that he can speak and has become civilized, she decides to change his sentence to exile on Earth, with the humans as his wardens.  Cobra Bubbles also points out that, since Lilo paid two dollars for Stitch and has the receipt from the shelter, she is his legal owner, and to take him would be stealing, which goes against the Federation's rules of conduct.  The Councillor asks if she has ever met Cobra before, and he mentions that he used to work for the CIA--in Roswell, New Mexico.  It was he who convinced the aliens that mosquitoes were an endangered species, and that Earth should be reserved as a wildlife refuge, with human beings a vital part of the food chain.  The Councillor asks him to keep an eye on things, and departs--leaving Jumba and Pleakley behind as well.

In the ending montage, the humans and aliens become an 'ohana,  Hawaiian for "family," and rebuild Nani's house.

The End

Yes, it's a cartoon.  Yes, it's a Disney cartoon.  But that also means gorgeously painted backgrounds, exquisite animation, clever character designs, terrific voice acting, and bittersweet moments that will have you choking up, as well as numerous sight gags that work even if you're not familiar with Hawai'i and its unique culture.

The film drags in places and can be almost painful to watch, particularly in the scenes where Lilo is being a misbehaving beast and Nani is trying not to kill her in frustration, but it makes up for it with scenes like the one where Pleakley is so delighted that a flock of mosquitoes has chosen to land on him and nuzzle him...and then the jungle erupts with an echoing scream of horror as he realizes, too late, what they're really up to.

The film is lovely to look at, hand-drawn animation at its lush best.  The style is far from typical Disney artwork, though.  The characters look like they could have become Muppets (Disney, after all, bought Henson Associates shortly before Jim Henson's untimely death) and there's a manic, Muppetish feel to the production.  Former chief Disney storyboard artist Chris Sanders--who once drew for Muppet Babies--had come up with Stitch for a book that did not get published, then used the character for this film.  His drawing style influenced the animation, and he even provided the voice of the demon.

When the decision was made to set the film on Kaua'i, the directing team learned about the culture of 'ohana, the extended family network of the native Hawaiian people, and chose to incorporate this into the story.  None of the characters have a real "family," but they become one by the story's conclusion.  They learn to overcome or set aside their selfish motives in the interest of helping others.  In doing so, they help themselves, too.

There are no villains in this movie, at least not in the classic sense.  Everyone is just doing their job, and sometimes that means having to do unpleasant things.  Stitch's misbehavior is due to his programming, which he learns to overcome.  Lilo's misbehavior stems from her anger and grief over losing her parents and not having any friends to relate to.  The aliens are just doing their jobs and are actually trying very hard not to harm or alarm any Earthlings.  Even Agent Cobra Bubbles, who looks way scarier than any of the alien monsters, turns out to be an okay guy.  Captain Gantu's cockiness gets the better of him, but even he isn't really bad, not when you compare him to the usual run of Disney's megalomaniac villains.

So I'd recommend this film highly, and not just for Conservatives.  It's a delightful little film that shows a young woman working very hard to try to make a home for her orphaned sister, despite the odds of poverty and the little sister's wilful disobedience.  It shows a handsome young man who is shy and kind and a little bit klutzy who gets tongue-tied when he tries to ask Nani out on a date.  There's the over-arching lesson about the importance of family that can't be stressed too much these days.  The aliens all look way cooler than they ever would in CGI.  The film is filled with details that require several watchings to catch.  The background scenery of Kaua'i is a watercolor dream.  The inevitable musical interludes aren't sachharine--they're Elvis, thank you very much.  And there's hula.  Non-rotoscoped, technically accurate hula dancing.

You don't get that in your average sci-fi movie!