Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Disney's Lilo and Stitch

My sister likes to compare me to Stitch from this movie. Or at least my younger self. I was pretty out of control, and you didn't want to give me large amounts of caffeine. When my parents let me have a cappuccino for the first time I ran around the house so much they forced me to get on the treadmill until I calmed down. But I was nothing compared to everyone's favorite little blue alien. I definitely didn't eat as much, and no one let me have a laser blaster. Though Lilo has her name in the title too, most people remember good old Stitch. Disney had made several big budget movies in the 90's that luckily made their money back and then some. That wasn't the case so much for the early 2000's. Their last four movies didn't really do that well compared to their 90's entries, so Disney decided to take things down a few notches. They wanted to make a more economically-made movie like they had done before with Dumbo, which was Disney's cheap response to big budget projects Bambi and Fantasia. Chris Sanders, who was the head storyboard artist at the time, was asked to pitch some ideas. It just so happens that Sanders had the perfect idea. He had created the character of Stitch for a children's book in 1985, but was unable to gain any support for it. He then decided that one day he'd turn it into a movie, about an out of control alien that runs amok in rural Kansas. Kansas being chosen because it would limit the amount of havoc Stitch could inflict on the infrastructure since the state is kind of desolate and out of the way. When it was brought up by Sanders for consideration, Disney decided to change the location to the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i, somewhere still isolated, but a more interesting setting. This movie would, of course, be the first Disney movie set in Hawaii. It's also one of the few that are set in the present time.

Like in any animated film based off a real life place, the crew went to the island of Kaua'i to get some ideas for the landscape animation and culture that would be an integral part of bringing the story alive. Something that really hit the crew as they were getting tours of the island was their tour guide's explanation of the word 'ohana. The guide detailed how it doesn't just mean family in the sense of your immediate family members, but extended members and friends. "No matter where we went, our tour guide seemed to know somebody. He was really the one who explained to us the Hawaiian concept of 'ohana, a sense of family that extends far beyond immediate relatives. That idea so influenced the story that it became the foundational theme, the thing that causes Stitch to evolve despite what he was created to do, which was destroy," explains writer Dean DeBlois. The Disney animators faced the daunting task of meshing the film's plot, which showed the impoverished and dysfunctional life that many Hawaiians lived during the then-recent economic downturn, with the island's serene beauty. To help authenticity further, Disney received help from the voices of Nani and David, who both either lived in Hawaii, or had grown up there, to get the proper colloquial dialect and slang for the Hawaiians in the film.

The background animation for Lilo and Stitch is something that we haven't seen in a long time. Instead of using the typical gouache technique for backgrounds, the animators instead went with watercolors, something they hadn't done since the early years of Disney animated films. Chris Sanders preferred the look of watercolor though, as it would give the movie a much brighter look and allow it to follow the art direction of Dumbo. On top of that, the characters weren't designed to look like the usual Disney house style, but were modeled directly off of Chris Sanders' drawings. This is one of the many things I enjoy about Disney; their ability to change up their animation a little bit and not get too stuck into one single one. This is more apparent in the more recent films, as the older ones just seemed to be evolving into more sophisticated animation. This film looks completely different from Atlantis, and Atlantis looks different than Pocahontas or Hercules. Each film, for the most part, has its own animation style and that's what keeps people coming back. I love Bluth films, but they all look the same for the most part. I think that is part of the reason his movies petered out in the early 90's. That, and he couldn't replicate the success he had story-wise in the 80's. But that's a story for another day. Disney has taken risks, and some haven't worked out, and some have. Luckily, Lilo and Stitch was one of the gambles that paid off for Disney.

Several things were changed about Lilo and Stitch before it made it to theaters. Stitch was originally supposed to be part of an intergalactic gang, and Jumba was one of his former cronies that was sent after Stitch by the Intergalactic Council to capture him. Test audiences apparently didn't like the feel of that plot so Disney changed the relationship between the two to being creator (Jumba) and created (Stitch). Another big change was near the end of the movie when Stitch flies a 747 into downtown Honolulu to save Lilo. After 9/11 though, they felt this would be a might disrespectful so they changed the plane to a spaceship. I really don't think we'll see a movie with any sort of plane or air born apparatus flying into anything for a long time.

Lilo and Stitch was released on June 21st, 2002 to rave reviews, one of only a few in the 2000's to be critically lauded, the others being The Emperor's New Groove, The Princess and the Frog, Treasure Planet, and Bolt. Praises were given to the story, Stitch, and of course the beautiful animation. Peter M. Nichols even stated that through the character of Nani and her struggles the film appeals to older children much more than some of the other Disney movies that attempted to do the same thing, namely The Emperor's New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Treasure Planet. The film proved to be a success in the box office too, ending up with a worldwide gross of over $273 million. Given that the film was made with an $80 million budget, $40 million less than Atlantis, it's easy to see that this film made Disney quite a profit. The film proved to be popular enough to spawn two direct-to-video sequels and a television series. Lilo and Stitch is one of my favorites of the decade, but not my most favorite. That was Emperor's New Groove. My other favorite is coming up in the next post.

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