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By Michael Dequina | June 23, 2002

An Elvis-worshipping young girl named Lilo finds her only friend in her new pet “dog” Stitch — who is in actuality a genetically-engineered creature of destruction from the distant planet Turo. Based on that premise, one could conclude that Disney has gone completely mad with their latest full-length animated feature, “Lilo & Stitch.” And one would, to a certain degree, actually be correct — not that that’s a bad thing in the case of this raucous comedy/adventure, easily one of the strangest products to ever emerge from the Disney animation pipeline.

“Lilo” is basically a cross between the “lonely kid bonds with figure of alien origin” premise of Warner Bros.’ woefully underappreciated The Iron Giant and the Looney Tunes-style zaniness of the Mouse’s own The Emperor’s New Groove, infused with a strong dose of Hawaiian cultural flavor. While that description suggests a certain offbeat nature, it still doesn’t quite do justice to how unconventional the film is, particularly in the case of the lead characters. The lab-bred destructive instincts of Stitch (voiced by co-director and writer Chris Sanders) don’t exactly lend themselves toward being an ideal earthly inhabitant, let alone a pet, to put it mildly. Then again, Lilo (Daveigh Chase) isn’t exactly the most ideal owner. The bratty Lilo is far from the prototypically angelic kid in films like this. The audience has only seen her for a couple of minutes before she opens a can of whoop-a*s on another girl in a dance class, and this is soon followed by the first in what turns out to be a number of instances where she makes her overworked older sister Nani (Tia Carrere) miserable.
So it only naturally follows that Lilo and Stitch would become close — though not necessarily because of their naughty ways but rather the spirit and heart that lie beneath their boisterous behavior. More than anything the two just want to belong, as both are orphans; Stitch is the only of his kind, while the only family Lilo has left is Nani. The three come to form an unusual but loving and likable family unit, one that is threatened to be torn apart by various forces as soon as it’s formed. One minute it’s tough social worker Cobra Bubbles (Ving Rhames, voicing a character that bears more than a passing resemblance to his Marsellus Wallace in “Pulp Fiction”), who doubts Nani’s ability to be the breadwinner and caregiver for the household; the next it’s two figures sent to Earth to capture “Experiment 626”: Stitch’s alien scientist creator Jumba (David Ogden Stiers) and Pleakley (Kevin McDonald), an Earth “expert” with a penchant for wearing wigs and using View-Masters as research reference.
That latter character description should give a clear indication as to how Sanders and co-director Dean Deblois manage to sidestep any potential mush. Family, or rather the Hawaiian idea of ohana, ultimately reveals itself to be the overriding theme of “Lilo & Stitch,” and as the title characters bond and grow softer, so does the film. But before any sentimental moments are allowed to move from gently touching to gooey, the reckless, energetic abandon of the directors reasserts itself, whether through zippy pacing, exciting action sequences (and there are quite a few, justifying the film’s PG rating), but above all the unremittingly wacky vibe. While there are certain touches that make one wish Sanders and Deblois set some limits (namely, why did they indulge Carrere and give her a brief musical interlude, and why the f**k did they let the Scandinavian scourge known as the A*Teens butcher “Can’t Help Falling in Love” over the end credits?), this sublimely silly and genuinely sweet film will make kids and adults alike interested in seeing the inevitable Saturday morning spinoff.

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