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Lilo & Stitch (Dean Deblois & Chris Sanders) 2002
The first few scenes of Lilo & Stitch, Disneyís latest animated adventure, have such a disparate tone from each other that you canít help but wonder if the movie will ever settle down into a consistent feel. Iím not sure that it ever does really. Throughout it combines broad physical humor with pop culture references skewed toward adults and slick sentimentalism with crass irreverence. Still, itís precisely this wildness that gives this cartoon a freewheeling quality that makes much of its idiosyncrasies more tolerable than you might expect. A wild pre-title sequence sets up most of the plot. A scientist on trial for ethical violations (timely!) is recruited to track down his escaped biological war weapon after it escapes to Earth, a primitive planet thatís being used as a wildlife preserve to rebuild the endangered mosquito population. Since this is a Disney movie though, that war weapon turns out to be, Stitch, an endearing little creature that roughly resembles a fuzzy blue wolverine.
The majority of the movie takes place in Hawaii, where Stitch crash lands, and the filmmakers capitalize on that location by providing surfing montages, luaus, and rampant bouts of hula dancing. Itís here that we meet Lilo, the titular Hawaiian pipsqueak who gives the movie the majority of its heart. Certainly the first time that Lilo speaks, it prepares you for the worst. As the latest in the long line of animated Disney orphans, she comes equipped with a pair of unsymmetrical eyes and a grating, high-pitched squeal of a voice that pegs her as about the farthest thing possible from likable. Worse yet, it seems that whenever sheís onscreen and the movie begins preaching about the bonds of family, the satiric edge that the movie had built up to that point evaporates. Midway through the film, however, a curious thing happens, and suddenly she morphs from strident, to acceptable, to downright likable. The message of the movie suddenly seems intrinsic to its success, and a new moral arises: ďNever underestimate the Disney animatorsí ability to sell you sapĒ.
Thereís no denying that the animation in Lilo & Stitch is one of its primary joys. Itís cel-based, with only the smallest amount of computer assistance, and the characterizations and lively backdrops have a vibrancy that no computer animated feature has yet matched. Small details, like a robot that vomits a mixture of screws and cogs when disgusted, make the world that the film takes place in come alive. The soundtrack doesnít hurt either. Instead of being chock full of whatever pap Phil Collins decided to churn out this year, a mixture of covers and classics from Elvis Presleyís catalogue enliven the events. Theyíre infinitely preferable to a smattering of easy-listening ballads, even if their inclusion in this kidís movie shows us how utterly desexualized the once racy King of Rock and Roll has become. Lilo & Stitch might not be a new Disney classic, but itís certainly a step up from last yearís garish and overloud Atlantis, and itís probably the best cartoon that the studio has released since Mulan.
* * 1/2