LILO & STITCH - DVD review

Would-be screenwriters will think it's money well spent just for the pitch book that's included on this release.

James Plath's picture

"Lilo & Stitch" was Disney's major animated release for 2002, and it was interesting enough to make a splash at Cannes. There was something intriguing about a little Hawaiian girl and a mutated alien she adopts, thinking he's a dog. Same old same old? Not remotely. Especially when you have that girl stuck on Elvis, with her playing his records all the time, and when you add a teenage sister who's responsible for Lilo because their parents were killed in a car accident. (Don't pretend to be shocked--this IS Disney we're talking about, and orphans are their specialty.) This one was for all the lost sheep and ugly ducklings out there--a nature vs. nurture experiment where nurture finally wins out, and even the oddest duck finds a family.

When a multi-eyed mad scientist, Jumba Jookiba [voiced by David Ogden Stiers], is brought to trial for creating a mutated monster programmed to destroy things, the supreme space council banishes Experiment 626 to life on an asteroid prison. But the tiny blue creature, which looks a bit like a deranged koala bear with a lionfish spine and an extra pair of arms, cops a police spacecraft and ends up crashing on a Hawaiian island. Enter little Lilo [Daveigh Chase], who lives with her older sister, Nani [Tia Carrere]. Since the death of their parents she's been a bit of an anti-social outcast herself, biting friends and conjuring up voodoo dolls to "punish" them. She prays for an angel who could be her friend, and when she sees the spaceship crash, she thinks it a falling star and a sign that her prayers have been answered. But instead of an angel, what she gets, of course, is a little devil. In fact, Stitch was an experiment for the House of Mouse, too. Not since Warner Brothers' toothy and snarling Tasmanian devil has there been a cartoon character capable of whipping up such perpetual mayhem-in-motion. And Stitch makes the biggest character transformation ever: from antagonist to protagonist in the span of just 85 minutes. Though her condition isn't as severe, Lilo's journey is the same, nonetheless: from anger to happy acceptance.

It all starts when, dazed from the crash, the little monster is hit by a truck and taken to an animal shelter. He first tries to escape, but when he sees that Jookiba and his one-eyed assistant [Kevin McDonald] have been sent to bring him back, he pulls in his spine and extra set of arms and tries to pass for a dog. The rest of the film follows the little guy Lilo names "Stitch" as he interacts with his adoptive family--Lilo, Nani, and the older sister's boyfriend, David [Jason Scott Lee]--and continues to dodge his pursuers. Complicating matters? Another intergalactic henchman [Kevin Michael Richardson] is sent to capture Experiment 626, and a Men-in-Black-looking social worker named Cobra Bubbles [Ving Rhames] threatens to remove Lilo to a more stable environment. It doesn't help that David is prone to set things on fire, and Nani can't seem to control her sister. But as their father told them, Ohana means family, and family means that no one is left behind. And kids, you have to care about someone other than yourself. That's the message. Will every ruckus-wreaking youngster who watches Lilo & Stitch see the pain that Stitch inflicts on the family, sense his remorse, and mimic his behavioral turnaround? That seems to be the hope in this Disney venture that seeks to have it both ways--edgy and feel-good.

Stitch may be the rambunctious one, but it's Lilo who steals the show. Anyone familiar with the behavior of 4-6 year olds will find her character dead-on--the gestures, the melodramatics, the expressions, the quick fuse. Whether she's trying to explain why she's late for her hula lesson (She had to feed her fish in the lagoon, and her sister had packed tuna fish. Could she feed tuna to her fish? NO!) or squirting Stitch with a water bottle to try to train him, she evokes full-on sympathy. What's refreshing about this film is that everything isn't all sweetness and light. The relationship between Lilo and her big sister isn't exactly the model behavior one finds on The Cosby Show. This Disney orphan feels more than just a momentary twinge of sadness. Lilo and her sister have actual issues to resolve, and the little alien, ironically named "Stitch," as in sewing, tears them apart before he ends up helping them to mend.

Alan Silvestri collaborated with Hawaiian hula master Mark Keali'i Ho'omalu to create two wonderful songs that capture the spirit of the islands and this island romp, and Silvestri also managed to playfully integrate eight Elvis songs into the film's soundtrack.
The artwork is distinctive in that it looks like a brighter-than-pastels series of watercolors, and the backgrounds and animation--whether under water, above it, or anywhere else on the island--is wonderful to look at. Even John J. Puccio, who's said on more than one occasion that he really isn't a fan of animated films, wrote in his review of the first DVD release that "with its good humor, quick pace, deft direction, and beautiful art work, the film is a pleasure to sit through." That's high praise, and I felt the same way when I first watched this film. It gets better with age, too.

John gave this a 10 when he first reviewed it, but since then, the release of Blu-ray titles has complicated life for film critics. When you know how flawless a picture can look in 1080p, it skews your perception of 720p. But this disc is as good as DVDs get. The amount of grain is fairly minimal, and the watercolor look is tonally in tune with the laid-back personality of the Hawaiian islands. "Lilo & Stitch" is presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and "enhanced" for 16x9 televisions to increase the viewing area.

The audio is a lively English, French, or Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, which makes good use of the rear effects speakers and does a pretty good job of filling the room with sound. It's a fairly dynamic soundtrack for a DVD, with a slightly rumbling bass and strong mid-tones driving it. Subtitles are in French and Spanish.

Disc one includes many of the same features as the first DVD release, with a second disc providing additional content. Most of the extras are minis, averaging just 2-4 minutes, but they're still a fun complement to the film. Music-wise, there's a short feature on the 40-voice Kamehameha Schools Choir, composed of Hawaiian children ages 9-13. They do the back-up on the two original tunes, and really make both songs soar. Then there's a short piece on Wynonna, who does a new version of Elvis's "Burning Love" (the King handles most of the songs), a short "Hula Lesson" with footage of Keali'i Ho'omalu in the classroom talking about the hula and the four basic steps, and a music video of "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You" by the A-Teens.

Kids will like this disc's version of DisneyPedia, where you can click on each of the Hawaiian Islands to learn about them. There's some gorgeous footage of the islands and enough facts to satisfy young minds. Also fun is the "Stitch in Time" slide show, featuring the little blue monster in stills from Snow White and dozens of other Disney classics. Best, for kids, is the "Create Your Own Alien Experiment Game," which combines trivia with a guess-the-order click-on. Three sets of three questions are included. Then there's an Island Adventures game--three, really--that didn't work on my iMac. One is a passive gecko race with four different color geckos. You have to shout out which color you think will win, then click on the whistle and watch to see if you earn an experiment point. You'll need to keep track of the points, too, since there's no registering as players. The second game is the old shell game, which moves very fast. But I couldn't click on anything. Maybe you'll have better luck. The third game is a standard matching game with cards laid out on the screen. As games go, this trio isn't much.

The most substantial bonus feature on disc one is the audio commentary by directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, who are a little more energetic on this track than they are on the disc two documentary. The ground they cover is typical, but they do a good job of nailing down the combination of strategic and anecdotal information.

The first release featured only three deleted scenes. This one features five of them on disc two, along with early versions of three more. The big bonus feature on the second disc is a sprawling two hour and five minute documentary that's broken up into generous scene selections. The thing is, it's the most minimalist and barren documentary I've ever scene. The camera runs, and there's no sound except for the voice of the person on-camera. Clips are few, and the pace is so leisurely and the ground they cover so meandering that it's easily one of the driest and most tedious documentaries I've ever sat through. The most interesting segments came near the end, where we see a little more energy from the directors as they recall what it was like to go to the Cannes Film Festival and to Italy to promote the film. There's plenty of fun footage of the French Riviera at festival time, too.

What I enjoyed more than the documentary were the 21 "footnotes" to the documentary, which included deleted scenes but also various resources and things that were alluded to in the documentary. Among the best is an interview that DeBlois conducted with his idol, Disney animator Joe Grant, who's been going to work since 1934. Ninety-five at the time of the interview, Grant is sharp as a tack and offers his opinions on the current state of animation and recounts how "Dumbo" was born. Another gem among these footnotes is Chris's pitch book that the directors talked about on the first release. Well, it's here in its entirety, in color, too. For would-be filmmakers or writers hoping to pitch an idea to a studio one day, it's an invaluable asset. But even for just-plain film lovers it's a revelation, because the film changed so much between the original "pitch" and the film we now have. Example? Stitch built an evil robot and then created more of them, which he unleashed on the town in a terrible attack. Great stuff, and smartly illustrated, too.

Bottom Line:
Like "Mulan," "Lilo & Stitch" is a stronger film than most reviewers first gave it credit for. It's offbeat, action-packed, and it has a heart as big as a Hawaiian welcome. And in keeping with the Disney philosophy, the style of drawing has its own distinctive look. This one isn't just for the kids--it's a true family film, which is why I'm surprised that a two-disc DVD is being released instead of a consummate Blu-ray. But the line for Blu-ray treatment is long for Disney animation. Who knows how many years it will take for this little Hawaiian girl and her "dog" to make it? So, should you upgrade? Well, that's a coin your going to have to toss yourselves! Would-be screenwriters will think it's money well spent just for the pitch book that's included on this release. But kids won't think the new games or bonus features are worth the upgrade. This upgrade is curiously geared more for parents who can't get enough behind-the-scenes detail about the genesis and development of an animated feature. Even then, it's not a dynamic presentation, with far too many shots of people talking rather than voiceovers while we watch some step in the animation process.


Film Value