A little girl named Lilo looks out of her window and, in traditional Disney fashion, wishes on a falling star. "I need someone to be my friend," she says. "Maybe send me an angel, the nicest angel you have."
It's a swell thought, kid, but tradition is not on the menu this time around. That star is actually a crashing spaceship, the hoped-for angel turns out to be an obnoxious genetically engineered monster, "the flawed product of a deranged mind," and "Lilo & Stitch" is definitely not the kind of animated Disney family film we've become used to.
Looser and less obviously formulaic in its fresh approach to our hearts, the brash "Lilo & Stitch" has an unleashed, subversive sense of humor that's less corporate and more uninhibited than any non-Pixar Disney film has been in time out of mind. With its hand-drawn characters and its use of watercolors for backgrounds (the first time the studio's done that since the 1940s), this is a happy throwback to the time when cartoons were cinema's most idiosyncratic form instead of one of its most predictable. That's likely the result, at least in part, of Disney's agreeing to an unusual setup in which writer-directors Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois, in a departure from typical animation practice, also story-boarded their script, ensuring that the anarchic spirit that infused their original concept wouldn't get diluted. For it's not only Stitch, a relentless combination of koala and chaos interested only in destroying everything he touches, who's out of the usual Disney mold. Little Lilo (voiced by Daveigh Chase) is hardly a walk in the park either.
Raised as best she can by older sister Nani (Tia Carrere), Lilo is introduced as brattiness personified, way too hostile to her sister and everyone else to be perceived as anything but a tedious troublemaker. Lilo's eccentric passion for Elvis Presley (the film makes wonderful use of six of the King's biggest hits, from "Hound Dog" to "Heartbreak Hotel") is one of her few humanizing traits.
Given that both of its title characters are scruffy, unpleasant outcasts who take considerable warming up to, "Lilo & Stitch's" surprising ability to both explain how they got that way and motivate their inevitable transition to better behavior and genuine caring (this is a Disney film, after all) is that much more unlikely and impressive.
"Lilo & Stitch" begins, in a deft parody of the "Star Wars" sagas, in a meeting of the Galactic Federation on the planet Turo. Mad scientist Jumba (David Ogden Stiers) is convicted of illegal genetic experimentation, and the resulting creature, named Experiment 626, is to be exiled to a desert asteroid.
But 626, nothing if not unstoppable, manages to escape and get himself to the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where he disguises himself as the strangest-looking dog and is adopted by the lonely Lilo. She calls him Stitch and, happy for a friend, overlooks his wacky destructive proclivities, such as an ability to magically turn her toys into a facsimile of San Francisco only to enthusiastically stomp the city to pieces a la Godzilla. (Parents, be prepared to do a lot of explaining.)
Unknown to these fast friends, threats are forming on the horizon. "Men in Black"-esque social worker Cobra Bubbles (Ving Rhames), given to saying such things as "You've been adrift in the sheltered harbor of my patience," is threatening to split the family. Plus the Galactic Federation, which has come to view our planet as a protected wildlife preserve for the mosquito, with humans useful only as part of that insect's food chain, dispatches both creator Jumbo and deluded Earth expert Pleakley (Kevin McDonald) to capture 626 and throw away the key.
"Lilo & Stitch" is not only set on Kauai, it features many specific references, such as a cart selling shaved ice and what looks like the lobby of the Hanalei Bay Resort. And the film's overriding theme, the Hawaiian notion of ohana or family, meaning "nobody gets left behind or forgotten," is a specifically island one.
"Lilo & Stitch" makes excellent use of the best of Disney's animators. Andreas Deja, who was the supervising animator for Gaston in "Beauty and the Beast" and Jafar in "Aladdin," takes on the recalcitrant Lilo, and Alex Kuperschmidt, responsible for the hyenas in "The Lion King," makes the jabbering Stitch (grumbles and rumbles voiced by writer-director Sanders) remarkably expressive.
Though the requisite happy ending is inevitable, "Lilo & Stitch" is too unhinged to feel arbitrary. It's just a film that believes, as Boys Town's legendary founder Father Flanagan did, that there's no such thing as a bad boy. Or a bad girl. Or, for that matter, a bad alien.
MPAA rating: PG, for mild sci-fi action. Times guidelines: A few briefly scary scenes and lots of frenetic activity.
"Lilo & Stitch"
Christopher Michael Sanders...Stitch
David Odgen Stiers...Jumba
Ving Rhames...Cobra Bubbles
Released by Walt Disney Pictures. Directors Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois. Producer Clark Spencer. Screenplay Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois. Editor Darren Holmes. Music Alan Silvestri. Production design Paul Felix. Art director Ric Sluiter. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times