Review by Kim Hollis
June 22, 2002
There's a lot to love about Lilo & Stitch.
Naturally, Stitch is going to get the most publicity. He's an adorable alien who is basically ready-made for plush toys and atypical action figures. The little blue creature really is deserving of all the attention he's going to receive because the character is hilariously rotten, yet he has an inner sweetness that is heartwarming without being cloying.
It takes a lot more than the antics of a cute critter to make a full-length movie work, though, and this is where Lilo & Stitch truly succeeds.
First and most importantly, the other title character is absolutely delightful. Lilo is a young orphan who has been left in the care of older sister Nani, and she is naturally going through a lot of the struggles that a young child who has lost both her parents might experience. She reacts with anger and lashes out physically at classmates who misunderstand her and causes trouble for her sister even as Nani deals with the social worker who thinks Lilo might be better off in a foster home. Despite her troubles, Lilo, much like her titular counterpart, is a clever and sympathetic individual with whom any child will readily identify. Daveigh Chase is the child actress who gives voice to the character, and she certainly deserves much of the credit for making Lilo utterly unforgettable.
Nani is a real revelation as far as Disney characters go; a young adult with real-world problems such as caring for her young sister, making a positive impression for the social worker and keeping herself employed. On top of all that, she feels obligated to avoid the advances of sweet surfer-dude David because her responsibilities simply don't allow her the opportunity to date. Nani is singular among animated heroines in that she is a realistic-looking woman…she has natural curves and a genuine athletic look. In fact, it's easy to envision that Nani's appearance is at least partially based on the person who provides her voice, Tia Carrere.
Contributing to the excellent foundation laid by the core characters is an outstanding group of supporting players. As always, these characters provide both the conflict and the comic support, though all of them become slightly less important than they might be in a typically formulaic Disney film due to the fact that Stitch himself is the source of a fair amount of discord and hilarity. At the opening of the film, we meet four of the lesser players, all aliens who wind up participating in the hunt for little "Experiment 626". Primary amongst these are Stitch's creator Jumba and Earth expert Pleakley, who have been partnered together and sent to Earth to recover the little menace. The oddball appearance of these two characters is offset perfectly by their voices. David Ogden Stiers' Jumba is simply terrific, while The Kids in the Hall's Kevin McDonald gives the perfect twitchy, neurotic twist to Pleakley (McDonald might be alarmed to know that his animated alter-ego, despite having only one eye, bears more than a passing resemblance to him.)
The other two characters who are integral to the story are the aforementioned David, an attractive islander with eyes for Nani, and Cobra Bubbles (you heard me), the rather large and intimidating social worker who is handling Nani and Lilo's case. David, voiced by Jason Scott Lee, is a stable, steady presence in the lives of our heroines, while Ving Rhames' Mr. Bubbles stands out as a memorable, extraordinary character even as he is surrounded by a number of unusual creatures and beings.
If the plot of Lilo & Stitch owes much to The Iron Giant, a sadly overlooked animated offering from three years ago, at least it was borrowed from an exquisite source. The earlier film deals with very similar themes and issues on a much more serious level, with the story being set during the Cold War era, a theme that is reinforced by the snow that covers the ground at one point in the tale. Lilo & Stitch is substantially more lighthearted and combines pure science fiction with the present-day islands of Hawaii, the songs of Elvis Presley, and subtle homages to classic cinema and television. While this might have been one of the unlikeliest pitches ever accepted by a major studio, everything works seamlessly to make up the pieces of a film that is, quite simply, the best Disney traditionally-animated offering since The Lion King, and there's no doubt that it's all about the characters. Sure, the spaceships and aliens are fun, and of course the surf scenes are tremendous, but in the end, it's just undeniably easy to get attached to Lilo, Stitch and Nani, so much so that I left the theater with a huge smile and the inclination to see the film again as soon as possible.
And that's exactly what the best animated films do.