2002 rewatch: Lilo & Stitch still packs an emotional punch beneath its goofy trappings
Every week, Entertainment Weekly is looking back at the biggest movies of the summer of 2002. As audiences struggled to understand the new post-9/11 world order, Hollywood found itself in a moment of transition, with upcoming stars and soon-to-be-forever franchises playing alongside startling new visions and fading remnants of the old normal. Join us for a rewatch of the first true summer of Hollywood's strange new millennium. Last week: Critics Leah Greenblatt and Darren Franich explored how The Bourne Identity reinvented action movies. This week, we have two rewatch posts for you: First, Patrick Gomez and Christian Holub go deep on Lilo & Stitch; then Leah and Darren re-interrogate Minority Report.
CHRISTIAN: Sometimes even Disney can't predict the future. In 2002, the House of Mouse seemingly expected their big animated moneymaker to be Treasure Planet, a sci-fi imagining of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island from the studio's most accomplished director team, John Musker and Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin). Accordingly, they set it for a prestige-y winter holiday release while the purposefully less expensive Lilo & Stitch splashed into summer. Lo and behold, Lilo & Stitch became a pop-culture juggernaut while Treasure Planet flopped so badly, it stopped Disney from producing any other classically animated features for the next few years. (It was a more exaggerated version of what had happened with Pocahontas and The Lion King when they went into production at the same time in the early 1990s.)
It probably helped that Lilo & Stitch had a genuinely creative marketing campaign behind it. The theatrical poster featured established Disney characters like Pinocchio and the Seven Dwarves gawking in fear and disgust at the little blue menace, Stitch. Trailers would open with an iconic Disney scene (like the "Whole New World" flying carpet sequence from Aladdin or the ballroom dance from Beauty and the Beast), as if advertising one of Disney's regular theatrical rereleases, only for Stitch to burst in and humiliate the protagonists.
This was an inspired way for Disney to answer the creative challenge that had been posed by Shrek a year earlier. After all, who could take old-fashioned princess-movie sincerity seriously after the zeitgeist had been conquered by an animated film that opened with the titular character on the toilet? You had to get sarcastic or meta. But even if it helped get people into theater seats, this Lilo & Stitch advertisement campaign turned out to be pretty at odds with a beautiful beach movie about how family means no one gets left behind.
Patrick, what do you remember about seeing Lilo & Stitch in theaters for the first time 20 years ago?
PATRICK: It's funny you mention the silly ad campaign being a bit of a bait-and-switch, because that mirrors my personal experience with the film. When it came out, I happened to have some cousins visiting from out of town, and I wanted to give the parents a break and offered to take their seven-year-old son to the movies.
It was the first time I took a kid to see a movie, and I was feeling very grown up about it. This will be a silly kids' movie and I'm here as a chaperone, not to actually enjoy it myself. That started out the case, until Stitch broke me.
The film begins fine enough: Two orphaned sisters (Tia Carrere and Daveigh Chase) take in a "dog" that's actually an alien that's actually a robot, and shenanigans ensue. But about an hour in, as the climax approaches, Stitch's alien creator, Jumba, comes to retrieve him. Jumba (David Ogden Stiers) says Stitch doesn't have a family, an "ohana." "But maybe I could," Stitch replies meekly, only to deflate when told, "You'll never belong." That moment of desperation, as Stitch grapples with the finality of his captor's statement, struck me instantly. This was not an "Oh man, that's sad" fleeting thought, this was a "Why are my cheeks suddenly soaking wet?" situation. Looking over and seeing my baby cousin staring at me like "What's wrong with this guy?" is etched in my brain forever.
It was a few years before I finally realized why that moment hit me so hard. While I doubt it was writer-directors Chris Sanders (who also voices Stitch) and Dean DeBlois' intent, Jumba's statement to Stitch rang true to what, at the time, I felt my life as a gay man would be like. This was 2002: Legalized gay marriage didn't seem within the realm of possibility, and Stitch's lot in life was my worst nightmare of a future.
Damn, I didn't mean to turn this into a therapy session. What sticks with you, Christian?
CHRISTIAN: That's the thing, Patrick, this movie packs an emotional punch — though I have to admit, my initial reaction to seeing Lilo & Stitch in theaters was probably more in line with your younger cousin's. I thought it was a totally enjoyable experience, and I was definitely enamored with the characters enough to watch Lilo & Stitch: The Series on Disney Channel now and then over the subsequent years.
What struck me most about rewatching Lilo & Stitch here in 2022 was the Elvis of it all. There's a big, fancy, Baz Luhrmann biopic of the King of Rock and Roll due out this month, and though early reviews make clear the film carries its director's trademark anachronisms (in his A- review, EW's Joshua Rothkopf identified new songs by Doja Cat and Gary Clark Jr. on the soundtrack), it seems clear that Luhrmann's Elvis is interested in its protagonist as a historical figure: the things he experienced, the people he knew.
Lilo & Stitch, by contrast, is exclusively invested in Elvis as legend — the cornerstone of 20th-century American pop culture, some might say. It's always been a fun question to pose to friends: What music would you show aliens to demonstrate the qualities of Earth culture? Lilo & Stitch asserts that the best choice would be Elvis Presley, and it's hard to disagree. Just look how cute Stitch comes off in the sequin suit! And though Elvis' music is rooted in his Memphis upbringing (something that Luhrmann's movie explores in great detail), those songs still feel perfectly at home on the Hawaiian beaches of Lilo & Stitch.
After all, the reason Baz's Elvis has a chance to become the definitive Presley biopic is that there haven't been that many of them over the years. And that's because, up until now, you didn't need an Elvis biopic. His image, persona, and music were so ingrained in American pop culture for so long, not least because of his own prolific film career, that everyone (even theoretical aliens) could just take him for granted as a figure and focus on the music. In fact, the Lilo & Stitch soundtrack was probably my first direct exposure to songs like "Hound Dog" and "Suspicious Minds."
Other than Elvis, I want to shout out the character designs in Lilo & Stitch, because they are truly amazing. Stitch himself manages to be both terrifying and adorable, a tricky balance that it is hard to imagine any future live-action remake pulling off. I also love the physical mismatch of the bearlike, four-eyed Dr. Jumba with the stick-thin, one-eyed Pleakley (Kevin McDonald). All of Pleakley's line readings had me cackling just as much this time as I must have when I was a kid — especially the ones in drag — and it's nice that McDonald's comedy group Kids in the Hall is currently in the midst of a much-deserved creative renaissance. There's just one thing I think Pleakley is wrong about: Mosquitoes definitely should go extinct.
Any last thoughts, Patrick? Do you think the magic of Lilo & Stitch could ever translate to live-action?
PATRICK: I fear any 2020s live-action remake would have to either go Alvin and the Chipmunks silly or full-on sci-fi action movie. The magic of Lilo & Stitch is that it was both those things, while also staying just this side of saccharine sweet. And that speaks to the power of animation, a medium that calls on us to suspend disbelief, takes us back to childhood, and allows us to embrace the wacky and the sincere in equal measure.
That said, it was reported in late 2020 that Disney was looking at John M. Chu to direct the live-action Lilo & Stitch. His adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians successfully walked that same fine line of "aww" that could easily turn to "ugh" — a tightrope I hope he crosses again with his current project, Wicked (good lord, what they say about original ideas really is true).
Like Lilo and Stitch themselves, Lilo & Stitch was an underdog (underalien-robot?), so maybe I'm just underestimating a live-action version's potential the same way people wrote off the original as the other animated Disney movie of 2002. (That distinction should actually go to Return to Never Land, which I completely forgot about until fact-checking this piece.) As long as any new version remains true to the core of what made this film special — chosen family looking out for each other no matter what — then it has a chance of succeeding.
Christian, I'll leave you with a fan theory I came across the other day that melted my heart: Stitch is named Stitch because he brings his family together. Somewhere my cousin is side-eying me hard right now.
Read past 2002 rewatches:
- How The Bourne Identity reinvented action for a new millennium
- The Sum of All Fears was somehow too late and too early
- Insomnia was a flawed but promising daylight noir from pre-Batman Christopher Nolan
- Star Wars: Episode 2—Attack of the Clones is still fascinating and confusing
- Unfaithful brought sex to the summer
- Spider-Man still swings high one multiverse later