Rated PG - Running Time: 1:25 - Released 6/21/02

Lilo & Stitch is the latest "conventionally animated" effort from Walt Disney Pictures (that is to say, not associated with the Pixar digital animation company, with whom Disney has collaborated on such spectacular films as Toy Story [1 and 2], A Bug's Life, and Monsters, Inc.). As a straight animation piece it deserves at least a passing grade; it's not in the same league with the likes of Beauty And The Beast or Aladdin, but it's much better than, say, last year's Atlantis: The Lost Empire. It is set in a part of the world never visited before in a Mouse House feature, namely Hawaii, and is full of the color and culture of our exotic 50th state, with Hawaiian actors playing the main adult roles and lots of sun, surf, and sand incorporated into the story and artwork. It is written and directed by relative newcomers Dean Deblois and Chris Sanders (Sanders himself essays the voice of Stitch), who have notably chosen to use watercolor background paintings, a medium not used in a Disney feature since Dumbo (1941), adding, for better or worse, an old-fashioned touch to the film's overall look.

The story begins on the alien planet Turo, where a multi-eyed mad doctor named Jumba Jukima (veteran Disney voice David Ogden Stiers) is arrested for illegal genetic experimentation after having produced a short, large-eared, six-legged, fireproof, waterproof gremlin with super strength known only as "Experiment 626," apparently designing it for no other purpose than to cause mass destruction wherever it goes. Soon the creature escapes and heads into deep space, indiscriminately landing on planet Earth, specifically, the island of Kauai. There he is adopted by a troubled and friendless little girl named Lilo (Daveigh Chase) who lives with her older sister Nani (Tia Carrere) after the death of their parents in a car accident. Although Nani tries her best to take care of her little sister, she loses her waitress job (primarily because of the creature, whom Lilo has named "Stitch"), and is visited by a no-nonsense social worker (Ving Rhames) who tells her that if she can't find gainful employment within 3 days, he will have to take Lilo away to a foster family. But every job opportunity she gets is ruined by Stitch's antics, and before long their house is in a shambles. Meanwhile, Jumba and his ineffectual one-eyed guard Pleakley (Kevin McDonald) are sent to Earth to apprehend the creature and return him to Turo.

For some reason, this movie had a depressing feel for me. It's of course full of humor and has an upbeat ending, with an oft-repeated message about the importance of family ties, but there's a sense of melancholy about the characters and their situations that bothered me. While Nani and Lilo struggle with their ambivalent sibling relationship, Lilo also lacks friends at school. She regularly fights with the other kids, who are hostile toward her in every situation, and even resorts to voodoo against them. Her one pal Stitch, meanwhile, is portrayed as a rather unsympathetic character until late in the final reel; I suppose his mischief and mayhem is supposed to be funny, but he's openly disliked by everyone save Lilo, including his creator, Jumba, who is more interested in studying his behavior than caring for him in any compassionate way. On the upside, the lively soundtrack features plenty of cool Elvis Presley music (Lilo is a great fan), and the final outcome is as heartwarming as that of any flick to spring from the drawing boards of the Disney Studios. For those parents who want to take their kids to the movies but can't stand the vulgar inanity of Scooby-Doo, Lilo & Stitch may provide you with an opportunity to Love Them Tender. But it may not be in theatres long, so Don't Be Cruel — It's Now Or Never. ***½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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