First Theatrical Release: June 21, 2002
First Home Viewing Release: December 3, 2002
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Where I Found It: My big box o’ Disney Love
Bechdel Test Score: Passed with flying colors. Female characters include Lilo, Nani, the Grand Councilwoman, and Mrs. Hasagawa. Lilo and Nani talk about all sorts of things besides the male characters, but mostly the importance/meaning of family. Nani and Mrs. Hasagawa also talk about a job opening Mrs. Hasagawa posted.
So, I should just come right out and say it: I was a hair away from giving this movie 5 stars.
What?!? But only The Little Mermaid has attained 5-star status. Is Lilo & Stitch as good as The Little Mermaid?
Well, maybe not. But it gave me that same, I WAS SO SATISFIED WITH THIS EXPERIENCE feeling as the end credits rolled. It made me tear up at least three times. AND it had no trouble whatsoever passing the Bechdel test. So why the stingy 4.5? Well, mostly because Stitch’s gross-out humor in the first half of the movie (long strings of mucous, slurping his own boogers, etc.) was pretty off-putting to me. Also, no showstopper musical numbers. But OMG, everything else! EVERYTHING ELSE!
I think the reason I overlooked this movie when I first saw it was because back then, my satisfaction in Disney movies was derived mostly from escapism. There was also an “aspirational” aspect to it: I was still waiting for my One Great Love Story to unfold (by 2002, when I was 21, I had only experienced two somewhat mediocre love stories), so I felt most satisfied on a “soul” level by losing myself in the great love stories of Disney couples. (Now that I’m 34, watching those love stories, I’m like, “Ahhh, you kids are too young to find The One and settle down!!!” But I digress …)
So, Lilo & Stitch did not satisfy on those levels when I was 21. I mean, yeah, the movie has aliens, but that does not an escapist movie make. I was practically emotionally devastated by how disturbingly realistic this movie is. So, let’s start there.
Messy Houses, Screaming Sisters, and Social Workers: What Really Happens When Parents Die
Nani and Lilo come from a long line of Disney leads with dead parents. But for Bambi, Cinderella, Belle, Aladdin, Simba, and all the other orphaned or semi-orphaned characters, the lack of parents served to make them tragically romantic. Killing off parents is a common plot device to force the protagonist to tackle life’s problems on his or her own. But Lilo & Stitch shows just how messy that actually is.
I admit that for as long as I have had a house of my own to keep clean, I have been distracted by Other People’s Houses on TV. The houses used as backdrops are ALWAYS SO CLEAN, even when the characters have such demanding careers that it’s hard to imagine when they ever have time to put away all their laundry and scrub the stove. I find myself longing for fictional houses shown in increments of mess — how great would it be if a sitcom showed a fit-for-guests clean house on Monday’s show, only to have the state of the home gradually deteriorate as the week went on, until it’s almost unbearable on Friday (and thus in desperate need of the weekend’s feverish cleaning?) It seems all TV and movie houses have that perpetual Sunday Night Glow — but not Lilo and Nani’s house. It’s got gunk crusted on the stove, records strewn about the floor, and dingy and crooked blinds. And that’s BEFORE Stitch comes in and starts destroying stuff.
Anyone who has a sibling can relate to Lilo and Nani’s cycles of fighting, making up, and fighting again — but this takes on even more of an edge because there are no parents around to break it up. When Lilo locks Nani out of the house, Nani screams through the doggy door that, “You are so finished when I get in there! I’m gonna stuff you in the blender, push ‘puree,’ then bake you into a pie and feed it to the social worker! And when he says, ‘Mmmm, this is great, what’s your secret?’ I’m gonna say–” (At this point, the social worker arrives and interrupts Nani’s tirade.)
I’m gonna admit it — this is just the sort of thing that I would judge a parent for if I overheard it while I was out in public. What a grotesque, horrible thing to say to a little girl! At the same time, as viewers we identify with Nani and/or Lilo, so we feel like “insiders” to their relationship rather than “outsiders” (as Mr. Bubbles is, or as I would be if I passed them in the grocery store.) Because of that, we can see that underneath the tantrums and the shouting matches is a love that has been tested and forged in the worst of times.
Nani is not a bad person, and we very much want to see her and Lilo stay together … but she does have to make some unacceptable compromises. I work as a reporter for a legal news organization, which means I look at dozens of lawsuits every day, including termination of parental rights cases. Often, a judge will write about how a parent clearly loves her children, but how removing them from her care is in their best interest — and in light of the cold facts lined up in the judge’s opinion, it’s easy to agree. And one of the reasons that children are often removed from their homes is because the primary caregiver leaves them unattended. Lilo IS too young to be home alone, or to play on the beach alone, or to go shopping alone, yet Nani subjects her to all these things. NOT because Nani doesn’t care about her, but because she is strapped for resources. She has to work to support Lilo and herself, she most likely can’t afford daycare or a babysitter, and instead she must just hope every day that the sh*t won’t hit the fan while she’s away. Which, ultimately, it does.
The thing is, it’s easy as “insiders” for us to see Mr. Bubbles as the “bad guy” who’s trying to break up a family. But as someone who works on the periphery of his line of work, I can see it as an “outsider” would, and I can’t entirely fault him for finding the situation to be untenable.
Aladdin romanticizes poverty; Cinderella romanticizes abuse; but Lilo & Stitch is almost brutal in its complicated portrayal of reality. As soon as Lilo pulls her battered doll out of her backpack in hopes that she can play with her “friends,” I knew in my gut that this was a different kind of Disney movie. And from that moment on, I teared up two or three more times, and just felt weighted down by how unspeakably sad this movie is in its unflinching, nuanced portrayal of a struggling family. At one point, after explaining her parents’ death to Stitch, Lilo, assumes Stitch has suffered a similar loss: “I hear you cry at night. Do you dream about them? I know that’s why you wreck things, and push me.”
And there it is, folks: people do bad things for a reason. People who seem to be “difficult” are often really just hurting. Damn, this family can teach us a lot about acceptance and forgiveness — probably the most critical lessons Disney has to offer.
A Word on … the Aliens
So, I feel that I would be remiss to write about this movie without at least giving a passing mention to Stitch and the aliens.
Before things go back to being heavy, can I just ask: What is UP with these aliens? They seem to be a conglomeration of at least 12 different species all hanging out on a spaceship together. Is there a planet out there that has intelligent life that is THIS diverse? Is this spaceship some kind of embassy bearing aliens from around the galaxy? Is it a Noah’s Ark situation, and it’s picking up two of each type of alien in existence? At any rate, it’s pretty cool that they’re all ruled over by this fantastic lady.
But as diverse as they are, they all seem to agree on one thing: Stitch is just TOO deviant even for this bunch. (I really want to know what he says to make the robot dude puke at the beginning). Well, to be perfectly honest, Stitch kind of creeps me out, too. I secretly want Lilo to select one of the OTHER dogs just like Nani does. Also, like Nani, I would have wanted to get rid of him on the first day, as his destruction of Lilo’s bedroom and his other antics TOTALLY STRESS ME OUT.
But from the beginning we see that Lilo is drawn to “broken” things — she is content with her misshapen rag doll and doesn’t seem to envy her friends’ perfect Barbies. She takes photos not of beautiful Hawaiian scenery, but of overweight and awkward tourists. And she sees in Stitch someone who desperately needs to feel loved and wanted, even though he has no idea that is what he needs himself.
Stitch can be a metaphor for so many things. He is initially referred to as an “abomination,” a word that has been used against people with developmental or physical disabilities, homosexuals, bastards, children of incest, and, yes, genetically modified creatures. His questions about his purpose, his heritage, and his identity will resonate with anyone who has ever felt out of place, but perhaps particularly with those who have been adopted or otherwise removed from their family of origin. His journey from destructive outsider to cherished family member mirrors the hope of every foster child — not to mention the foster parents.
Ultimately, Stitch’s explores the endless question of nature v. nurture. His “nature” is to be destructive — one might even say evil, although I don’t think he had the capacity to assign any sort of morality to his behavior. He has not been “programmed” to build attachments or to love, and yet Lilo’s love and patience transform him. It’s debatable whether any of us is born knowing how to love, but Stitch certainly was not. I’m refraining from telling a few personal stories I can think of right now, but what they ultimately have taught me, and what this movie also teaches, is this: we can teach others to love by how well we love them.
It’s too bad that Stitch had to be booted out of his home to learn that, but such is the story of many of us. Our salvation is that love does exist in the world, and by some miracle it can find us–even when we look like this.
The ending is perhaps a little too perfect — I wondered how it was that suddenly Nani and Lilo don’t seem to have money troubles anymore (i.e., they can afford to travel to Graceland and to places where it snows.) We know that they are under “intergalactic protection,” which is what keeps the social worker out of their hair, but are they receiving intergalactic funding, too? Maybe they get funds to care for Stitch the way foster parents get funds from the state. Also, why do they want to hang out with Jumba? We didn’t see him go through a conversion like Stitch does. Did they forget the part where he blew up their house? I mean, I get that this movie is about making your own sort of family and misfits banding together and such, but we don’t have to let EVERYONE in, do we? The family gets a little too big and happy at the end, which is at odds with the realism in the rest of the movie. (And I personally would not trust a guy who built a creature of destruction to hang out with a six-year-old, even if said creature ended up not being so scary after all.)
Still, a lot can be overlooked in light of Stitch’s beautiful admission that this newfound family is NOT perfect. Instead, it “Is Little. And broken. But still good.”
May we all be so lucky.