‘Lilo & Stitch’ at 20: How he broke the mold long before ‘Moana’

When director Chris Sanders began work on “Lilo & Stitch,” the film’s visual development supervisor, Sue Nichols, made a comparison that surprised him.

“She did a side-by-side drawing of Mulan next to Nani,” Sanders said, referring to Lilo’s older sister. “And she pointed out that Mulan was actually missing bits of her anatomy, if you look at the height of her torso.”

Sanders, who wrote and directed ‘Lilo & Stitch’ with Dean DeBlois, opted for a fuller animation style for the film, a comedic adventure that won praise from critics and fans alike for its realistic body types. , its cultural accuracy and its misunderstood protagonist in the two decades since its release on June 21, 2002.

The film tells the story of a young Hawaiian girl named Lilo whose life is turned upside down when an alien fugitive, Stitch, crashes nearby. The film laid the groundwork for trends in recent Disney films, such as the lack of a major love story and a more pessimistic protagonist.

“When we turned the clocks from the 1990s to the 2000s, everyone thought the world was coming to an end,” said Shearon Roberts, publisher of the book “Recasting the Disney Princess in an Era of New Media and Social Movements”. and associate professor of mass communication at Xavier University in New Orleans. “So all the content they were creating was less of the fairy tales that we saw in the 80s and 90s and more of this exploration of the unknown.”

Sanders originally conceived the story as a children’s book, but revamped the plot for the big screen. He was an underdog from the start.

After a string of high-profile but expensive 1990s releases like “Atlantis” and “Tarzan” that cost $120 million or more, the producers of “Lilo” aimed to make a smaller movie for $80 million. DeBlois and Sanders, who had worked together in the story department on 1998’s “Mulan,” reunited to co-direct and co-write. Daveigh Chase, a preteen who was already a seasoned actress, voiced Lilo. But for Stitch, they went with Sanders.

“We didn’t want to go see a real actor like Danny DeVito and then have the studio come and say, ‘Why did you hire someone who’s a known entity, but he only says 15 words?'” he said. Sanders.

“I like that it’s how he’s remembered,” said Clark Spencer, who produced the film and is now president of Walt Disney Animation Studios. “But that was Chris’ character from day one. He did the design; he knew what he wanted the character to be, for the voice to sound like. I can’t imagine anyone other than Chris’ voice for Stitch.

Originally, the story was set in rural Kansas, but after an island vacation, Sanders decided to shoot the film in another remote location: Kauai, Hawaii.

He, DeBlois, and other members of the creative team took another trip — together, this time — to Kauai, talking to locals and learning about Hawaiian culture.

“One thing we learned working on ‘Mulan’ is that when you set a story in a specific place in the real world, there are places you can’t go,” DeBlois said. “There are cultural elements that you cannot use because you are a foreigner.”

So they enlisted Hawaiian musician Mark Keali’i Ho’omalu to consult with them on hula dancing and choral arrangements, and Hawaiian-raised cast members – Tia Carrere, who voiced Nani, and Jason Scott Lee, who played her boyfriend – suggested edits to better reflect the colloquial Kauai dialect.

The production didn’t take the steps that “Moana” did, such as hiring a Hawaiian writing and directing team, though Roberts, the Xavier University researcher, said its more realistic portrayal of ‘Hawaii was a start.

“Disney has really struggled to tell stories about Asia-Pacific,” she said. “That’s why they spent so much time building a brain trust around ‘Moana’, a movie that had a much better reception, from the casting to making sure parts of the arc of the story doesn’t border on the stereotype, so there would be a few more lessons in bringing people to the table to support their writing team.

“Lilo & Stitch” tackled real-world issues young viewers might relate to: Nani, forced to become Lilo’s legal guardian after her parents are killed in a car accident, faces parenting difficulties. And a social worker always seems to catch Nani and Lilo at worst.

Still, the filmmakers received negative feedback during the first screening, Sanders said: Viewers didn’t like Nani grabbing Lilo by the wrist in one scene because they mistakenly believed Nani was Lilo’s mother. .

The filmmakers clarified that with a tip from Howard Ashman. “He said, ‘If you want the audience to remember something, you have to say it three times, one after the other,'” Spencer said. “So we did the scene again,” ensuring that Lilo and Nani mention that they are sisters three times in a row.

But the team didn’t want to edit the film in response to another complaint, Spencer said: Audiences didn’t like how Nani and Lilo yelled at each other.

“Chris, Dean and I would be like, ‘But this is real,'” Spencer said. “It’s a time when Nani feels pressure, when Lilo feels out of place and tries to figure out who she is.”

The filmmakers also favored realism in another area: a more realistic representation of female bodies. Lilo is petite and chubby, and Nani has thick thighs and what Sanders called “a real pelvis.”

Roberts, the scholar, said the film was a notable departure from typical Disney fare. “The decade before, princesses had fully developed adult female bodies,” she said. “But we allow Lilo to still be childish. Her face is very innocent. We have a body that is not a size 0 – we have femininity fully embodied in our dimensions.

Lilo also has the right to be a child personality-wise: “One of the tropes of these movies is that children are always smarter, better, more attuned than adults, who are played as jesters,” Sanders said. “But we didn’t do that. Lilo bites a little girl, she throws a fit and says things that don’t make sense. She acts like a real kid.

Lilo, Roberts said, was the rare animated Disney woman without a love interest (unless you count her passion for Elvis). By choosing to focus on the sisterhood of Lilo and Nani instead, the studio finally accomplished the reversal of an archetype that had been established as early as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” she added.

Disney had “slowly picked up the ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ message back in the 90s,” she said, adding that previous films like ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Mulan’ had proved to Disney that a film with a female lead as strong as its male love interest could make money. “So Lilo then takes a step forward by eliminating the male love interest.”

Janet Wasko, the author of “Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy”, noted that by focusing on a female lead with no romance or marriage plot, “Lilo & Stitch” foreshadowed future female Disney stars as Moana, Merida from “Brave” and Riley from “Inside Out”.

“Lilo & Stitch” proved to be a critical and commercial success, opening just $500,000 behind the Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller “Minority Report” and ultimately earning $273 million worldwide. (It also earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature, but lost to Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away.”) “Lilo” spawned a franchise that would include three direct-to-video sequels and three TV series. , as well as a number of theme park rides. There’s even a live-action remake in development.

“It’s one of the movies where when people say, ‘What did you work on?’ you literally feel a change when you say ‘Lilo & Stitch,'” Spencer said.

Fans have repeatedly told her how they can relate — to Lilo’s frustration at feeling misunderstood, to Nani’s determination despite a world that continually thwarts her good intentions, even to Stitch’s rebellious nature.

“When the movie came out, that’s what a lot of critics were talking about,” he said. “These moments that were based on reality in a way that people could see themselves, and they didn’t feel like cartoon characters.”

For his part, Sanders wants more people to notice how much the relationship between the two sisters anticipates “Frozen” by more than a decade.

“To be clear, I think ‘Frozen’ is awesome,” he said. “But it was a little frustrating for me because people were like, ‘Finally, a non-romantic relationship with these two girls,’ and I thought, ‘We’ve done this! This has absolutely been done before.

James C. Tibbs