Disney has released dozens of animated movies over the years, and its safe to say that the media titan has a habit of creating instant classics. Recently, the studio has refocused its attentions on movies with a moral, with Frozen especially lauded as one of its most progressive films. Yet, there are several films that were once ahead of their time, now forgotten and never quite getting the recognition they deserve — and Lilo & Stitch is the best of all the underrated classics.
I first watched Lilo & Stitch on a plane to Australia when I was 11 years old. From when the first strains of "He Mele No Lilo" floated over a tropical sea, I was transfixed, captivated. This genre bending blend of sci-fi, family drama, and comedy was something I had never seen before. As the plot went on, I immediately identified with the chaotic and excitable Lilo, laughed out loud at Stitch's antics, and was thrilled by the concluding spaceship sequence. I watched the movie a total of 15 and a half times on the flights to Australia and back, and have watched it countless more times in the years since. To this day, I only have to hear "He Mele No Lilo" and I tear up.
Lilo & Stitch is incredibly affecting because its story is grounded in reality. Unlike other #Disney films, which are populated by fairy tale characters with imaginary problems, Lilo and Nani feel real. That, combined with a Hawaiian setting that allowed the filmmakers to make some very pithy comments about colonialism, is the secret to Lilo & Stitch's success — despite the aliens running around Kauai's sun-drenched shores, this is Disney's most complex and realistic movie.
Lilo & Stitch Was Progressive Before It Was Cool
Lilo & Stitch is not a story of heroes and villains. Each antagonist has their reasons, each protagonist is supremely flawed. (Except David, who is a long-suffering sweetheart.) As the eponymous little girl lead of a Disney film, you'd expect Lilo to be the butter-wouldn't-melt type. Yet soon after meeting Lilo, we discover that she is clinging to a strange delusion about a fish's power, and when her faith is questioned she lashes out violently.
She has no friends, her doll is a monstrosity she made herself, and she practices voodoo to punish the children who taunt her. Lilo is a troubled girl, orphaned at a vulnerable age, and is now threatened with removal from her only surviving family member, Nani (who, by the way, is a fantastically complicated character in her own right). Lilo's struggle is one that children across the world face, and it's one that seems far too heavy for a Disney flick — and yet this is dealt with sensitively, and the movie provides enough comic relief to prevent us getting bogged down by the gravity of the situation.
Much of the comic relief is provided by the destruction-seeking Stitch, whom Lilo has taken upon herself to mold into a "model citizen". Stitch is Disney's most unlikely mascot, and although the movie might be almost forgotten, Stitch's popularity endures today — walk into any Disney Store and you'll see several plush Stitches grinning at you from the shelves. (Not gonna lie... I have a life size one.) Even the darker elements that make up the film are played for laughs, from the cross-dressing Pleakley to the menacing Mr Bubbles, a Men In Black-type social services worker with an unexpected heart of gold — and a history working at Area 51.
And yet, there's some vital commentary just under the surface of this movie. Lilo & Stitch examines the flaws of the social service system, the psychiatric stress of being orphaned, the economic pressure to take care of a child, and the alienation that comes with being different. Not to mention, Lilo's quest to photograph all the tourists that infest her town is an ingenious method of reversing the colonial objectivisation that many people of color face. Unfortunately, much of the colonial commentary was banished to the cutting room floor, like this telling sequence in which Lilo plays a prank on the island's tourists after being called "a real native."
Lilo & Stitch was progressive before it was cool, a movie designed to stand apart from Disney's other animated flicks. Faced with rival projects from Dreamworks, Pixar, and other animation studios, Disney wanted to set themselves apart again. Creator Chris Sanders came up with the idea of the anarchist little alien, shaping the film around him with one crucial motivation: to "let go of the idea of good and evil."
Lilo & Stitch is one of Disney's few sci-fi movies (with others like Atlantis and Treasure Planet also languishing in forgotten favorites limbo), with multiple references to sci-fi cult classics ET, Men In Black, Star Trek, and many more. It's rare to see something truly genre-bending from Disney, and it's a shame that Lilo & Stitch didn't inspire the studio to make more atypical animation features — instead Disney returned to what they're known for by churning out endless princess movies.
And yet, for all its progressive commentary and unusual genre stylings, Lilo & Stitch has what Disney strives for most: a whole lotta heart. Nani and Lilo might fight just like real sisters do, but they're bound together by a fierce philosophy of Ohana. Their dedication to each other is what saves the day, as Stitch, his megalomaniacal creator, and even the Galactic Council learn the value of family.
In Lilo & Stitch's conclusion, the true victory is one of compromise winning over adversity, as all parties come together to work out a solution. But as dry as that sounds, ultimately this means that this dysfunctional family can stay together through all the Elvis Presley montages their little hearts could wish for. After all, Ohana means family and family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.
So do yourself a favor, and don't forget this movie. Rewatch it (or watch it for the first time) and revel in Disney's greatest unsung classic — and I guarantee you that the songs are much less annoying than Frozen's.
Tell us in the comments: What's your favorite underrated Disney movie?