The Bottom Line: It may have helped that I found myself relating very much to both main characters.
The use of little kids in movies is one thing that I've come to merely tolerate. They're a fact of silver screen life. But honestly, I prefer not to see them, even in their own context, because they've become so much of a cheap directorial tool. The usual little kid in movies is precocious, adorable, innocent of any and all wrongdoing, and in far too many instances, there strictly for metaphor. They're what talentless directors usually use when they can't convey sympathy through more conventional (read: difficult) means. Therefore, whenever I see a single-digit-aged minor onscreen, one of my first instincts is to hope an oversized bald eagle swoops in, mistaking it for its next meal.
It's very difficult to portray little kids the right way onscreen, but the few that work can be among the most memorable. The mischievous twins from The Parent Trap - either version - kind of pushed the envelope of what a good youngster portrayal should be, but ultimately, they worked. Kevin McAllister from the first two Home Alone movies is also a standout. And now we have Lilo Pelekai walking the fine line in Lilo and Stitch.
I may be being too complimentary here. In truth, I found Lilo's dialogue to be a little bit inconsistent - there are times when she seems far too wise and world-weary for a six-year-old. But in most respects, Lilo is spot on. She has no "aww" factor, no cute little kid traits which charm the grownups and get her out of trouble because she's just so gosh darn keeyoot! Within 15 minutes of her first appearance, Lilo beats up a girl for calling her weird, runs screaming around the house to avoid disciplining from her older sister/guardian, and generally sets herself up as an incorrigible brat. Granted, she's not a SPOILED brat - she lost her parents to a car accident and her 19-year-old big sister Nani, who is also her guardian, is struggling to make ends meet - but within those two scenes, we know we're going to be spared the walk down the precocious path other film kids of Lilo's ilk often take us down. Lilo is, in short, a real girl.
Lilo and Stitch is about a pair of societal black sheep who find love and understanding in one another. So it's kind of appropriate that Lilo and Stitch would be seen as the black sheep of Disney's once-invincible animation cannon. Lilo and Stitch takes place in the modern era, as opposed to the 1600's or sometime before. It is hand-drawn, an increasing rarity in an era of CGI. It was created with a great respect for the culture of Hawaii's native population. It takes place in Hawaii. It has no real villains - even Gantu, the character whose actions are the most obviously villainous, seems to be performing more out of a sense of obligation more than anything.
The other half of Lilo and Stitch's namesake has a different origin story surrounding his destructive tendencies. Stitch was developed in a lab on a different planet by evil genius Jumba Jookiba. He was meant to have no higher purpose than the full-scale destruction of large cities ("...Where he will back up the sewers, reverse street signs, and steal everyone's left shoe!" Jookiba explains). Well, this this turns out to be illegal on the alien world, Jookiba is imprisoned for it, and Stitch is exiled and finds his way to Earth after escaping. Getting mistaken for a very ugly dog, Stitch is adopted by Lilo after Nani overhears her wishing for a friend over Stitch's escape ship, which was itself mistaken for a falling star. While Stitch first intends to use Lilo and Nani to hide from Jookiba - who was released from jail in order to retrieve him - and his assistant Pleakley, he eventually develops feelings for Lilo and overrides his destructive programming.
Writer/director Chris Sanders performs an incredible trick with Lilo and Stitch. He succeeds in endearing you to both characters while also getting you to repel them. It's clear from the onset that Lilo and Stitch are repulsive from the movie's viewpoint. Hell, Stitch really doesn't start off very well on the audience's terms, for that matter, and Lilo pushes the audience's limit frequently too. But just when you think one of them is starting to drift toward the moral event horizon, Sanders always eases back a little and reminds you that hey, you're supposed to be rooting for these guys.
Lilo and Stitch could have easily been another forgettable story about the misunderstood outcast, but there's an important difference: In this movie, BOTH of the main characters are outcasts. Lilo is a poor girl with an overactive imagination and a bad attitude and no place to direct them. Stitch is a destructive weapon robbed of his purpose because there are no large cities to destroy on the island he landed on. (The Hawaiian island the characters live on is never specified, but I always imagine it's Kauai.) Their dynamic is less about one being attracted to the other and trying to find a vulnerable spot than it is about them having no one except each other. Both of these characters have been rejected by the societies they live in. Even those with emotional connections to Lilo and Stitch get frustrated dealing with them, and they themselves even have trouble with each other at times.
This may not seem like such a major trick in such a movie, but its impact can be monumentally crushing in more emotional scenes. Each is threatened with abandonment by the other at certain points, and every time it breaks the hearts of them both because they both know the same cold truth: They'll have to return to the world that never cared for them without their soulmate.
In spite of all of this, however, Lilo and Stitch never feels like it's culling tears. The more emotional moments are less an ingredient in the typical Disney formula than a natural part of the story's flow. Usually movies about outcasts that feature rejection, social workers, difficulty in finding work, and dead parents are just taking cheap shots at your ducts. But Lilo and Stitch actually uses them for some of the most inspired comedic bits and writing ever seen in a Disney movie. The social worker, Cobra Bubbles, steals his first couple of appearances with lines like "Thus far you have been adrift in the sheltered harbor of my patience," and "In case you're wondering, this did not go well." Jumba and Pleakley provide wonderful comic interludes, (the latter is voiced by Kevin MacDonald of The Kids in the Hall, the legendary Canadian sketch comedy troupe), Lilo's attempts to teach Stitch how to be a model citizen by patterning the behavior of Elvis Presley, and one of the funniest Godzilla parodies ever all keep the movie's atmosphere light and fun.
Since the departure of Pixar and the popularization of anime, Disney has been struggling as of late to stay relevant in the animation market. I will even venture as far as to say Lilo and Stitch is the most recent great film they've created. Some purists may balk at the lack of any original songs (most of the music is courtesy of The King) and the lack of a true villain, but Lilo and Stitch is very deserving of a place among the great Disney animated classics right alongside Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Fantasia, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book, Bambi, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Mulan, and The Lion King. One thing we learn in Lilo and Stitch is that the Hawaiian word "ohana" means "family." Lilo, Stitch, Jumba, Pleakley, Nani, and Cobra Bubbles are all very welcome additions to Disney's ever-expanding ohana.