To most of our modern media, Disney‘s second ‘Golden Age’ of animation seemed to end with Tarzan in 1999. Almost every article I’ve read that mentions Disney animation in some form or another seems to assume that nothing good came from Disney‘s feature animation division until almost a decade later. Pity that they often gloss over a film that seemed to do pretty well in the summer of 2002 (then again, the media tends to focus on how much money you make, not the integrity of your character).
Conceived of by story artist Chris Sanders, the original concept for Lilo & Stitch was that of a strange alien creature lost in a forest. After more story work, the lost alien creature soon became a fugitive alien experiment (codenamed “Experiment 626”).
There was a feel of rude-n-crude humor to Stitch, but what managed to keep the film from falling into just being mediocre, was the story of Lilo (Daveigh Chase), a little girl whose imagination makes it hard for her to fit in, as well as get along well with her older sister, Nani (Tia Carrere).
In a way, both Lilo and Stitch’s abrasive tendencies allowed them to learn from each other, and provided one of the most unconventional films to come from Walt Disney Feature Animation in quite some time.
Production-wise, making the film was different in a number of ways:
1) It was only the second film to be produced entirely at Walt Disney Feature Animation in Orlando, FL (the only other animated film to be made there was Mulan).
2) Aside from an orchestrated score composed by Alan Silvestri (composer of Back to the Future), the majority of the music used were songs that were sung by Elvis Presley.
3) Background art for the production was painted entirely in watercolors.
Much like Atlantis: The Lost Empire had relied on artistic inspiration from Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, Sanders’ unique stylings would be all over his production. Straight lines in the production were largely done away with, and almost everything was given an expanded or rounded look to it (which definitely contrasted with the very angular designs of Atlantis as well).
The idea behind the production of the film, was making something on a smaller budget, but still retaining the heart of the piece. For inspiration, the filmmakers would often look to Dumbo, which was a simple little story that was also made on a much smaller budget than other films the studio had produced at the time.
This feeling to make a film in the spirit of the first Golden Age of animated features (1938-1942) also carried over into a small scene in the film. One of the first things that Stitch becomes interested in is a book showing the story of The Ugly Duckling. This was one of the last Silly Symphonies that The Walt Disney Studios produced in the late 1930’s, and I often cite it for its ability to be very emotional. There’s one scene that I recall seeing in the theaters, that noone ever really noticed as an ‘homage’ to that animated short.
To direct our attention to the film’s upcoming release, the marketing department soon attempted a campaign that was unlike anything we had seen before. Instead of giving us outright clips of the film, 3/4 of the movie trailers consisted of the alien Stitch invading some of the most heartfelt moments we recalled from the Disney classics of the early 1990’s.
Marketing made Stitch out to be the black sheep of the Disney character stable. He was the rebel, the anti-Mickey if you will. Even though he was engineered to destroy, a lot of people loved Stitch’s round, cuddly shape. It could tie into how we respond to various shapes. One study I remember reading said that babies tended to seem more comfortable with rounded, natural shapes than angular ones. This could also explain why so many people love Mickey Mouse: he’s largely made up of circles.
In the end, Stitch didn’t make gobs of money, but it was one of the most well-received animated feature from Disney, and it commanded a decent $145 million gross in the US alone. What I remember most about the film’s opening weekend, was a sight I’ve never witnessed since regarding a Disney theatrical release. At the time, I was working at a movie theater, and was surprised to see that the 10pm showing for the film was sold out! I snuck in to check out the crowd, and it wasn’t families…it was teenagers and 20-somethings that made up a good 90% of the audience!! Such a thing would become commonplace with many of Pixar’s films, but this was a rare occurrence.
Unknown to alot of people, a couple major changes were made to the story during its final year in production.
One of them was made after a test audience’s reaction to the scene where Jumba chases Stitch into Lilo and Nani’s home, and proceeds to fight him inside.
The original piece was a lot more violent, and at one point, the chainsaw Stitch finds gets out of his hands, and chases Lilo around the kitchen. At the end, the destruction of the home was more intentional as Stitch and Jumba’s fighting escalates. Stitch pulls out the stove, and turns up the gas, which soon turns into a ‘do you have the guts to do it’ moment between the two, resulting in Jumba pulling the trigger and destroying the home. This definitely was a bit more menacing than the final product, which became a comical game of ‘hot potato,’ with a jammed blaster.
Another change was the slamming on the brakes of an action set-piece in the wake of the events of 9/11. Originally, to get Lilo back from Captain Gantu, Jumba, Pleakley, Stitch, and Nani hijack an airplane, including flying it through a commercial district on the island.
This was a key sequence in the film, and much of the scene had already been animated and finalized.
The solution? Restructure the 747 so that it looked like an alien spaceship (after all, Jumba and Pleakley had to get to Earth somehow!), and change the commercial district to a mountainous canyon area.
The eventual DVD release of the film before Christmas satiated the public’s need to have a little piece of the adventure in their own homes, but many animation fans and myself were a little upset. Why? Well, the American release was a single-disc that gave us very little…whereas foreign releases to some countries contained everything from audio commentary, a documentary on the making of the film, and even numerous deleted scenes (such as the original house attack and the rescue by 747).
Eventually, our patience paid off as in the Spring of 2009, the 2-disc edition finally made it to our shelves, and I was sure to get it. If you love the film but don’t have the 2-disc set yet, get it! Or, maybe hold off as I’m sure some time in the next few years, we’ll get it on Blu-Ray.
Lilo & Stitch is one of those films that many of us recall before the resurgence of the dark times at Walt Disney Studios. That fall, Treasure Planet’s low-grosses in the wake of its exorbitant price tag would begin the eventual demise of hand-drawn animation at the studio, and leading to the eventual closure of numerous satellite studios the company had around the world (including the Feature Animation branch in Orlando). Chris Sanders stayed with Disney through the dark times, but when his concepts for the production American Dog (which later became Bolt) were not met favorably, he exited the studio and headed to Dreamworks. What did he do there? Oh, just a little film called How to Train Your Dragon (along with his Stitch co-director Dean DeBlois).
Aside from films made by Pixar Animation Studios, almost nothing that came out after Stitch quite captured the charm and emotions that permeated from that film. Lilo was not your conventional princess or ordinary little girl (she had issues, and at one point even lashed out at a girl who made fun of her), and doing things a little different is a way to make people remember you. Stitch could have just been an E.T. rip-off, but he was a weapon that soon learned there could be more to who you are…that you can change, and find a way to belong.
Some of you may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the television series, or the direct-to-video releases. Well, I’m one of those people that cuts off where the main creator(s) walked away. I’m the guy who will acknowledge Terminators 1 & 2, but nothing that came afterwards.
Lilo & Stitch also makes me fondly recall the summer of 2002, when I was entering my final year of studying animation, with our Team Animation class looming on the horizon, and my eager young attitude anticipating what was to come down the road, both in life, and in animation.