The other studios are making progress, but I still say Disney has a lock on reliably entertaining animated features. They produce at least one a year — “churning them out,” you could say, except that implies an assembly-line mentality that is not accurate. These things are funny, joyous experiences, and not something the studio just slaps together to raise funds to keep Walt’s corpse frozen.
“Lilo & Stitch” is not the instant classic “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid” were, and it may be time we stop comparing the modern films to those masterpieces. Frankly, without the songwriting team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, I doubt anything is going to come close to that level, and I’m glad Disney has given up the musical format in favor of more straightforward storytelling.
What “Lilo & Stitch” is, if not a masterpiece, is a highly watchable, giggly little story with a sweet edge to it.
We are introduced to two members of the standard old Disney category, the Misfits. One is Stitch (voice of writer/director Chris Sanders, when he speaks, which isn’t often), a strange monster genetically engineered on another planet by an idiot scientist (he prefers the term “evil genius”). Stitch is designed to be destructive, super-strong, and highly intelligent. But mostly destructive. Imagine a combination of a gremlin, “Saturday Night Live’s” Mr. Peepers, and any 2-year-old boy you’ve ever been acquainted with.
Meanwhile, in Hawaii, there is Lilo (Daveigh Chase), a precocious little girl who likes to take pictures of fat tourists and who lies on the floor lip-synching to “Heartbreak Hotel” when she’s depressed. Her parents are not around; she lives with her older sister Nani (Tia Carrere), who’s at her wit’s end in dealing with the mischievous, troublemaking Lilo.
Stitch’s home planet, appalled at his genetic freakitude, imprisons him, but he escapes and lands on Earth. His creator (David Ogden Stiers, making his fifth voice appearance in a Disney theatrical release) and a wormy sidekick (Kevin McDonald) are dispatched to retrieve him, but are instructed to avoid being seen by the humans. Stitch knows he’s a fugitive, and gets himself mistaken for a dog in order to be adopted by Lilo, thus giving him a hiding place.
If you have seen the exemplary 1999 film “The Iron Giant,” you will be reminded of it many times here. There’s a touch of “Men in Black,” too, with a man in black (Ving Rhames) who is a social worker, and of course the numerous other Disney films that have involved partial families and social outcasts.
Formulaic? Yes, indeed. The plot is simple, and since Stitch has no family to miss him, there’s no suspense over whether he’ll choose to stay with Lilo or return to his home planet. Is there a reason for Nani to have a surfer friend named David? Not really. Do the wacky bounty hunters amount to anything? Again, no.
Where “Lilo & Stitch” gets it right is not in the destination, but in the journey, particularly as it relates to the title characters. Lilo is a charming, original little moppet, and her relationship with the world and with Stitch is genuinely touching. The voice work by little Daveigh Chase is utterly delightful.
Again, this is not a classic. It is solid, and it would stand up to a few viewings before losing its flavor, but it would lose it eventually. But it made me laugh, and it made me feel honest emotions, and that makes it successful.
B+ (1 hr., 25 min.; )