Disney chooses paper over pixels
By Susan Wloszczyna, USA TODAY
Stitch, left, and Lilo in a scene from the lively animated film.
Sigh. Yet another Disney animated movie about a misfit orphan and an animal sidekick whose emotional tugs take cues from the dustiest of fairy tales — in this case, The Ugly Duckling. Not exactly. This is an odd duck that could prove to be a box office swan, one that could make traditional cartoon features soar once more after a three-year slump. Lilo & Stitch, a campy collage of animé rocket ships and Tiki-hut decor that surfs into theaters Friday, is as different from the rest of the studio's hand-drawn classics as Pat Boone is from Elvis — especially since six hits crooned by the King himself, including Hound Dog, just happen to shake Lilo's hula-hip world.
The rest of this Hawaiian punch of a kiddie cocktail, about a lonely island girl who adopts a foul-tempered galactic runaway as her pet, may be intoxicating enough to get family audiences as shook up about old-style animation
as they are about the way-out plots of computerized concoctions such as Disney-Pixar
's Monsters, Inc.
"It's interesting that Disney's big pitch for 2-D has a humorous story as wacky as recent 3-D hits, but with enough heart to capture the attention of people who like Pixar movies, Shrek
and Ice Age
," says Robert Bucksbaum of box office trackers Reel Source Inc.
He predicts that Lilo (pronounced LEE-lo) will have to reach at least $150 million to silence those suspicious minds who predict the doom of traditional 'toons. Blocking the way is such stiff summer competition as the just-opened Scooby-Doo
and the upcoming Like Mike, Stuart Little 2 and Spy Kids 2.
Disney's last 2-D smash was 1999's Tarzan, which swung to $171 million. Since then, the popularity of conventional animation has all too literally fallen flat. The studio's most recent traditional release, the action adventure Atlantis: The Lost Empire, was considered a washout at $84 million.
Other studios have tossed the pencil for the pixel. Twentieth Century Fox, which shuttered its traditional animation facility in 2000, is concentrating solely on CGI features after Ice Age scored a cool $173.8 million earlier this year.
Former Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg, the animation honcho at rival DreamWorks, whose computerized comedy Shrek grossed $267 million in 2001, is focusing his attention on digital cartoons or, at the very least, a blend of 2-D and 3-D, as in the current Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.
"Traditional animation as it existed in the 20th century is in the 20th century," he says. "We're in the 21st century, and we're going to continue to push it into being competitive in today's world. I'm not holding onto something for emotional reasons. What happens with Lilo & Stitch is not relevant to me. We don't make those anymore."
But ever since Snow White trilled her first note onscreen, the very foundation of the Magic Kingdom has been built upon hand-drawn features. And Disney isn't ready to do any major demolition work yet. Animation chief Thomas Schumacher puts the 2-D vs. 3-D debate in perspective: "Yes, the future has a great
deal of dimensionality to it, but beautiful movies with stories well told and characters you love will always work."
Adds Andreas Deja, a veteran Disney artist and steadfast traditionalist whose creations include Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, Scar from The Lion King and, now, Lilo: "Sometimes, with a computer, the expressions look downloaded. I invent an expression for each feeling. There's an honesty in drawing, an artistry. It's almost as if traditional is the novelty now. I really hope that people rediscover the magic of moving drawings."
That is what Lilo's makers are counting on as they feel the pressure of being painted as possible rescuers of an art form. With an original tale that has its own brand of visual dazzle, they believe they've got the goods to fight back.
"It's an interesting summer for this film to come out," says co-director and co-writer Chris Sanders about suddenly being seen as a test case. When he and partner Dean DeBlois began in earnest on Lilo after both toiled on 1998's Mulan, which grossed $120.6 million, "there was no general awareness of 2-D vs. 3-D and the difference between them. What we set off to do was to make a story that was a departure from the Disney norm."
Lilo's drawing style may be traditional, with hints of CGI employed for props such as surfboards. But its hunk-a-burning attitude is anything but. When was the last time a Disney moppet asked a tattoo-knuckled social worker who threatens to take her away from her guardian teen sister, "Did you ever kill anyone?" Besides plot elements, here's how Lilo repaves the much-traveled Disney path:
Make a splash the old way. Lilo is the first Disney cartoon feature to have its backgrounds drenched in watercolor since the era of Pinocchio and Dumbo 60 years ago. While Lilo may not possess the pop-out pizazz of 3-D animation, it offers an opulent alternative that complements its lush tropical landscapes.
Maurice Noble, a famed cartoonist (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
) who spent decades at Warner Bros.
before his death last year, tutored animators in the technique. "There are 1,200 paintings," producer Clark Spencer says, "and all are breathtaking."
Savvy move, says animation historian Jerry Beck. "My advice to Hollywood cartoon features is look to your history. There's so much wonderful visual material that can be brought back and rethought."
Create a Stitch of a hero. Stitch, a blueberry-hued fugitive from outer space who is taken in by 6-year-old Lilo after she mistakes him for a dog, looks like a mutant koala and acts like John Belushi on a Twinkie bender (down to the crush-the-can-on-your-head trick from Animal House).
If early toy sales and belly-laugh reactions to the long-running trailers, in which Stitch runs rampant through older Disney cartoons, are any gauge, the studio has launched its newest 'toon superstar. As Paul Dergarabedian of box office stats gatherer Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. observes, "There's not a kid in America who doesn't know the film is coming out."
Lilo also reclaims a quality, lost in the underwater morass of Atlantis, that used to be second nature to Disney back in the days of Dumbo and Bambi: unabashed warmth.
Stitch and soul mate Lilo, who housebreaks her pal through the power of ohana, the Hawaiian concept of family and unity, carry a message about extended clans that any therapist would embrace. "A divorced man who saw it with his 9-year-old daughter told us it was the first time she talked about how she fit into their family," Sanders says. "That was a neat moment of great confirmation."
Discover the secrets of the aloha sisterhood. With their healthy physiques and Hawaiian features, Lilo (Daveigh Chase, now 11) and her 19-year-old sister, Nani (Tia Carrere of Wayne's World babedom), don't just look like real girls. They also fight like real girls. Nani even threatens to put the misbehaving half-pint in a blender and replace her with a rabbit
. Lilo sadly notes that Nani is a better sister than she is a substitute mother.
Carrere, who saw only her portion of the script, was worried it was too much. "I felt like, 'Oh, God, I only yell at her.' "
As Deja animated his half of the sibling spats, however, he found they rang all too true. "Even though they are loving sisters, they can lose patience with each other. I had younger and older sisters, and the arguments felt like real life."
As for Lilo, she's not a sugar-and-spice confection like many 'toon tykes, but an eccentric misfit infused with a world-weary melancholia that's worthy of a Peanuts
"There's a fun, dark side to Lilo's belief system, like thinking that a fish can control the weather," Sanders says. "Her bookshelf contains a volume on fire-eating and road maps of Iowa. She lashes out, too, just like Stitch."
Honolulu-born Carrere lent cultural authenticity to her dialogue. "We know pidgin English, an inflection common on plantations. 'Hey, ah, what you like do? Go grind?' Grind is eat. Or when I call the social worker who almost hits Nani with his car 'Stoooopidhead.'
Whether or not audiences can't help falling in love with Lilo, the studio plans to return to the traditional drawing board for more features. They include the musical Western Home on the Range (fall 2003) and Bears (summer 2004). "It's like the 3-D movie fad of the '50s," Beck says. "Computer animation is big now. But I believe traditional style will not die. It may be languishing, but it ain't out."