Every few years, Disney studios release another ready-to-market niche animation that has no real redeeming value and syrupy, pedantic musical numbers that try, unsuccessfully, to regain the magic found at the height of the Hollywood musical. The characters are stereotypes, the songs are easy to hum and even easier to forget, and the characters ready for action figures.
This is not one of those films.
Lilo and Stitch is the latest from the animators at Disney Studios, and it really follows in no footsteps that I can tell, save for when Disney leads the way in animated films, which they're doing in this case. This film is unique in that the leading and supporting female characters are humans, and not your typical willowy Disney females either, but a much more realistic depiction. The characters are funny, as real as they can be as animated people, and the message of the film, "Ohana", which means family, and family means no one gets left behind.
This film was a breath of fresh air for me, especially this weekend. After choking down the offering I got from Adam Sandler, it was refreshing to see a film that talked about real families, real problems facing those families, and love that doesn't stop just because things get tough. The film follows Lilo (voiced by child actress Deveigh Chase), a young Hawaiian girl, who lives with her sister Nani (voiced by Tia Carrere). Their parents are gone, having died in an accident, and the struggles to keep the remains of the family together are at the forefront of this story. Add to that Lilo's less-than-normal attitude and you have a funny, rambunctious, tense familial situation which is thrown askew by the entrance of social worker Cobra Bubbles (voiced by the always entertaining Ving Rhames) who comes to check up on Nani and see if she's capable of taking adequate care of Lilo. When Lilo reveals her loneliness to her sister, they go to the local pound to get a pet, and find Stitch (voiced by director Chris Sanders), an escaped genengineered alien destroying machine, who has escaped his planned exile and landed on the island where they live. Stitch proves to be even more of a challenge to Lilo than she was for Nani, but they develop a bond and embrace the concept of ohana to become a real family, albeit a slightly broken one.
The music in this isn't like the other Disney films of recent years. There are no breakaway musical pop hits, no bursting into song... the music in this film is much more a real part of the story, appearing where it makes real logical sense to do so. That Lilo is an Elvis Presley fan just adds to the ambience of the film, and provides some of the films most heartfelt, earnest and entertaining moments. This is a movie about family, about loyalty, and about believing in the best a person can be over what they appear to be.
Not being a fan of most of the Disney films of the last decade, I went to this one hoping that the rumors I'd heard, about it being a very non-Disney Disney film, were true. Sure enough, apart from a more traditional wrap-up ending, this is a very non-traditional film from the Mouse. It has heart, it shows figures that could easily be real people, regardless of what part of the universe they come from, and deals with issues facing more and more families every day, with warmth, sincerity and compassion. This film comes off as sentimental, earnest, but not preachy or pretentious.
I give this film a surprised and delighted A-. If this is the sort of showing we can expect from Disney in the future, Dreamworks has their work cut out for them, competing in the animated-film market. Bravo to Christopher Sanders for writing a great story, and here's hoping he has more tales to tell, and those with the ability allow him to do so.