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"Lilo & Stitch": New Wave Disney

by on April 2, 2009

Despite making its name on glorious animated features based firmly on old fairytales, Disney has never been afraid of the strictures of genre or the conventions of story-telling. In fact, you could quite easily map all 31 narrative functions outlined by Vladimir Propp’s famous analysis of folktales onto the vast majority of the films that make up the Disney canon, from Snow White to The Lion King. However, Lilo & Stitch is one Disney film that breaks the mould. Actually, it doesn’t just break the mould: it smashes it, picks up the shards, and puts them on little skewers before finally melting them with a blow torch and eating them with marshmallows accompanied by Elvis singing ‘Suspicious Minds’. If you think I’m joking or exaggerating here: think again.

For those of you that have not seen Lilo & Stitch, I will not spoil the plot for you. Let me just tell you that in the first fifteen minutes of the film the action takes us quite a distance and we meet an unlikely cast of characters. Things start in a vaguely dystopian Star Wars-meets-Bucky O’Hare space setting replete with mad scientists, strange creatures that look like armadillos, and a mean dominatrix called the Grand Councilwoman who seems to be running things. It is here we meet Stitch, or rather ‘Experiment 626’, a small, ugly blue creature who has an appetite for destruction and not a lot else. From there we travel to the shores of modern-day Hawaii, where we are treated to an unexpectedly modern domestic scenario in which we meet a girl called Lilo, who loves listening to Elvis records. She is an orphan being raised by her sister, Nani, with whom she has a fraught relationship. She has trouble making friends at school, where the other kids bully her, while her sister tries to juggle a job as waitress with the chores of single-parenthood, seemingly to the neglect of the housework. We also meet a social worker who seems to have walked straight from the set of Pulp Fiction (I mean literally, he is Marsellus Wallace, as in it’s the same actor, Ving Rhames). This is anything but the set-up for your standard Disney fairytale.

Much of the film’s appeal is built around Lilo herself. At first she appears to be nothing like any of the other Disney heroines and princesses. She is moody, disobedient, troubled, lonely, willful, and, somehow, despite being so young, world-weary. Sure, we’ve seen other Disney heroines who aren’t quite as naïve and ‘goody-two-shoes’ as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty‘s Aurora—the headstrong and bossy Alice from Alice in Wonderland and the intellectual Belle from Beauty and the Beast both spring to mind—but we’ve not seen anyone quite like Lilo before. There’s a scene very near the start in which she locks her sister out of the house and pouts under the sofa, staring nonchalantly upwards while Elvis blasts out of her radio. Lilo’s depression and detached sense of existential pointlessness in that scene alone signal a bold move into the twenty-first century by Disney in 2002. (I’m quite disappointed that it was followed by such pedestrian efforts as Brother Bear and Home on the Range.) There are times when watching Lilo & Stitch where you have to remind yourself that it’s a Disney animated movie and not some Indie film directed by Wes Anderson.

As I have suggested, the other big draw in Lilo & Stitch is its surprising and relentless deviation from (and outright subversion of) customary generic narrative norm. It is not merely a radical departure from the standard Disney formulae; it is an attempt, as Mark Kermode might say, ‘to rewrite the rules of filmic grammar’. There are a few recurring motifs in this film that serve as basic emotional and narrative markers, such as the image of ugly duckling, lost and alone and in seach of his family, and the Hawaiian concept of ‘ohana, which, as Lilo’s father had explained to her, ‘means family, and family means nobody gets left behind. Or forgotten’. But things do not pan out as one might expect. Stitch is not a loveable alien a la E.T.: he’s an absolute nightmare to have around and (not to give too much plot away) he almost ruins the lives of Nani and Lilo. The cast of characters from Stitch’s home planet, who seem to be set up as the villains of the piece from the start of the film, do not necessarily end the film in that light. For perhaps the first time, Disney foregoes fantasy depictions of black and white and good and evil, and settles for ‘shades of gray’. It’s one of very few family films where you honestly couldn’t say at any moment where it is going to come next: it is refreshingly unpredictable. And I’ve not even mentioned the lush backgrounds, exquisite animation, and have barely mentioned the classic Elvis soundtrack. But trust me, it’s all good. Lilo & Stitch is a bold, touching and mature work If you don’t own it already then this is a great opportunity to pick it up.

The recently released two-disc ‘Big Wave edition’ set has a fair few extras for your perusal. These vary in quality. The first disc comes with an audio commentary track by the writer-directors, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, and the producer, Clark Spencer. I found it to be a little technical, sanitized and cold, with no real ‘life’ to it, if you know what I mean. There is also a completely throw-away ‘Hula Lesson’, which will be of absolutely no interest to children who own a Nintendo Wii or DS, and an equally superfluous educational bit entitled ‘DisneyPedia: Hawaii—The Islands of Aloha’, which again will be of limited interest to kids who have access to that thing called the internet, although I suppose we do get some nice shots of volcanoes here. There are also some other games and things on disc one, though I honestly don’t know why they bother putting such things on DVDs, as they are almost always rubbish, I don’t get the thinking of those who expect children will play those things when they have so many alternatives. Even the old Nintendo Game & Watch thingies from the early 80s were better than most of these: pointless. The two-minute music video, ‘Your Ohana’, is equally pointless, but ‘A Stitch in Time’, which inserts Stitch into numerous old Disney films along with new voice-work from David Ogden Stiers, is quite fun. A couple of unwarranted Elvis covers and teaser trailers fill up the remainder of disc one.

Disc two has an arduously long making-of documentary which goes on for more than two hours, almost double the length of the film itself. Much like the audio commentary, it manages to be informative and comprehensive without being particularly interesting, which is a shame considering the film itself is such a departure from standard Disney fare. Probably the most interesting section deals with how, following the events of 9/11, a planned sequence involving a Boeing 747 had to be changed to the spaceship chase we see at the movie’s finale. However, there are no real production values to speak of for this documentary: it is simply a series of barely edited together interviews on certain aspects of the film, rather than a coherent making-of featurette, That may appeal to some fan’s tastes, and there is quite an intimate feel about the whole thing, but at two hours I must admit that I found it quite a slog. Make no mistake about it: there is a staggering amount of depth here; I’m just not convinced that it is presented in a sufficiently interesting way or that it justifies its excessive length. As if that weren’t enough, there are a number of ‘footnotes’ to the main documentary including deleted scenes and eight- to ten-minute featurettes covering various aspects of the artwork and animation process. I’ll list the most significant of them here: ‘Walking is Falling’, which features a very old Joe Grant (who died in 2005); ‘Fishing with Ric’ is a chat between producer Clark Spencer and art director Ric Sluiter (he does some fishing too); and in ‘Ric Sluiter Interviews Maurice Noble’, Sluiter talks to long-time layout and background artist Noble. Finally, two ‘Chalk Talk’ featurettes discuss in detail the process of animating the title characters. There is also the ‘The Sanders Style Book’, which takes a nine-and-a-half minute look at the style-guide given to the animators. I found it all rather dry and at times it seems like over-kill; the real target audience for this stuff, I would suggest, consists of students of animation, people who are very interested in the drawing and animation process itself. I’m more of a character-action-and-ideas man myself, so I would have liked to have seen a little more emphasis on the story, the writing, the actors, and the big ideas behind the film.

This set is a must for animation buffs and a mild recommendation for Disney aficionados. However, personally, if I saw the single disc edition going for a bit cheaper, I’d be tempted to plump for that instead. Despite all these extras, the main feature is still very much the selling point of this set.

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