Lilo & Stitch: it only gets better

Lilo and Stitch 2
Illustration by Bethany Pile

Check out Part One of this two-part blog series here!

Before we delve back into the serious stuff, let’s take a moment to admire the unique and colourful animation style of Lilo & Stitch. For the first time in decades, the directors chose to return to watercolour backgrounds as opposed to the typical solid colour of most of Disney’s current filmography. Watercolours were used to create a more storybook look as well as to recall the aesthetics of Disney’s Dumbo.

The animation style also differed from the standard Disney fare, being more reminiscent of director Chris Sanders’ personal drawing style, which is often described by his fellow animators as seeming to melt, as if the images were dripping. This effect gives us the chunky and gorgeous curves we see on all the characters (I’m looking at you, Nani).

Reportedly, Lilo & Stitch was also influenced by another one of our Spec faves: Hayao Miyazaki, who, according to director Dean Deblois, “creates genuine relationships in the realm of fantasy”. This inspiration is apparent in the complexity of the characters’ relationships to one another. Fun fact: Kiki’s Coffee Hut is named in loving tribute to Miyazaki’s film Kiki’s Delivery Service.

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Nuanced Morality

The wonderful thing about this movie is the lack of “black and white” morality that is so predominant in films for kids. Too often, children’s media is excused for having poorly written, one-dimensional characters—something that is thoroughly criticized in most other genres. In mainstream film today, we demand well-written and complex female, queer, and ethnically diverse characters. Yet somehow we constantly excuse simplistic “good and evil” morality in films just because they are “made for kids”. Fiction is important because it allows us to see things that are not necessarily our personal reality, and to thereby gain empathy and understanding. The overwhelmingly reasonable characters and complex motivations and conflicts in Lilo & Stitch allow for a broader and more engaging experience.

Representation of Minorities

Although mainstream Hollywood seems to still be dragging its heels with good LGBTQ+ representation, films like The Danish Girl and About Ray, which premiered in this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, signal hope for the future. Unfortunately, the casting of cisgender actors in these defining roles is a blatant indication that we must keep pushing forward. With luck, we can move toward a future where characters are not defined by their gender identity or sexual orientation—or are turned into a farce—but are seen as people first, their sexuality and gender a small part of who they are.

Considering the state of modern media today, it seems amazing that Disney included such an ambiguous and gender-fluid character as Pleakley over a decade ago and in a children’s film. Clearly identified with masculine pronouns and voiced by a male actor, Pleakley resists gender constrictions by dressing in traditionally feminine attire when on Earth. While his choice of disguises could be chalked up to a misguided understanding of Earth (which Pleakley clearly has), he is further shown to enjoy his wigs and make-up, and remains in them throughout the film. It’s not even a point of contention in the movie; no one at any point has a problem with the way Pleakley chooses to dress and behave. While I’m not saying that Lilo & Stitch is the best portrayal of casual LGBTQ+ visibility that I have ever seen (the only gender-fluid character is not from our planet, after all), Pleakley is nonetheless a positive presence in the film. It certainly doesn’t hurt to be reminded that one’s decisions about one’s body don’t have to involve everyone around them.

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The respectful and beautiful way that the film portrays Hawaii also deserves a mention here. While Lilo & Stitch is set on the island of Kauai, it doesn’t exploit stereotypes in order to tell its story. There are examples of beautiful Hawaiian language songs, although they are not the only music that we encounter (Elvis makes numerous welcome and hilarious appearances throughout the film). The traditional-sounding songs serve to set the stage, but do not dominate the story as a whole.

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Similar is the treatment of traditional Hawaiian activities such as hula dancing and surfing, which are present but do not detract from the point of the story. What I mean to say is: Lilo does not have to win a hula competition to earn enough money for the surfing team; these activities are used to build on the characters, not the other way around.

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Furthermore, for the most part, the Hawaiian characters are played by Hawaiian actors. Tia Carrere (Nani) and Jason Scott Lee (David) are Hawaiian-born and Hawaiian-raised, respectively. For a film that doesn’t visibly show its actors, it is impressive that the casting directors took the care to cast actors with a relationship to the islands. The actors even helped to rewrite some of their dialogue using correct Hawaiian colloquialisms. The natural traces of an accent in their voices lend a realistic feel to the atmosphere of the film that is subtle but extremely effective.

Positive Romantic Relationships

On the subject of David Kawena, everyone take a good long look, because he demonstrates what you should be looking for in a partner. First and foremost a good friend to Nani and Lilo, David doesn’t try to hide his romantic interest in Nani, but neither does he resent her for being too busy to date him. Instead, he finds productive ways to be a positive force in her life, such as by cheering up the sisters when they are feeling down, or by helping Nani to find a job when she is at her most desperate. He seems to truly care about Nani, as a person and as a friend first. Theirs is a truly good example of a mature and sincere relationship, and anyone waffling about in the murky swamps of romance should take note.

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What my gushing boils down to is: don’t waste your time indecisively flipping through Netflix. Do yourself a favour—watch this film and drown in a torrent of happy-sad tears with extreme satisfaction.

-Contributed by Amy Wang

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