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Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Lilo & Stitch

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Lilo & Stitch

Year: 2002

Budget: $80 million

Box office: $273.1 million

Plot: Dr. Jumba Jookiba is arrested and put on trial by the Galactic Federation for illegal genetic experimentation, evidenced by his creation “Experiment 626”, a small sentient creature with unparalleled intelligence and strength but also a propensity to cause chaos. Jumba is imprisoned while Experiment 626 is sentenced to exile on a desert asteroid.

626 manages to steal a spaceship and activates the hyperdrive, causing its guidance systems to malfunction and randomly set a course for Earth. 626 crash-lands on the Hawaiian island of Kauaʻi, only to be knocked unconscious by passing trucks and taken to an animal shelter. The Grand Councilwoman dispatches Jumba and Agent Pleakley, the Council’s expert on Earth, to the planet to have 626 captured discreetly.

On Kauaʻi, a young woman named Nani has been struggling with caring for her rambunctious younger sister, Lilo, following the death of their parents. A social worker named Cobra Bubbles expresses increasing concern that Nani is unable to take adequate care of Lilo. To reduce Lilo’s grief, Nani decides to let Lilo adopt a dog. At the shelter, Lilo immediately takes a keen interest in Experiment 626, who is impersonating a dog. In spite of Nani’s doubts, Lilo names 626 “Stitch” and shows him around the island.

That evening, at the restaurant where Nani works, Jumba and Pleakley try but fail to capture Stitch. The resulting chaos is blamed on Stitch, causing Nani to be fired. The next day, Cobra warns Nani that if she does not find another job, Cobra will have to place Lilo with a foster family.


However, Stitch’s antics, including evading Jumba and Pleakley, ruin Nani’s chances of finding work.


Nani’s friend, David, invites Nani and Lilo to take a break and enjoy a day of surfing. While Nani, Lilo and Stitch ride a huge wave, Jumba makes one final effort to capture Stitch from underwater, causing Nani to wipe out, and Stitch unintentionally pulls Lilo down with him. Although everyone survives, Cobra witnesses this event and tells Nani that although she means well, Lilo will have to be taken away.

Seeing how much trouble he has caused, Stitch runs off. The next morning, the Councilwoman relieves Jumba and Pleakley of their assignment and gives it to the militant Captain Gantu instead, freeing Jumba to pursue Stitch using less covert methods. Meanwhile, David informs Nani of a job opportunity, which Nani rushes to pursue. Stitch, hiding in the nearby woods, encounters Jumba, who chases him back to Lilo’s house. A fight ensues which destroys Nani and Lilo’s house.


Cobra arrives to collect Lilo and take her away. As Nani and Cobra argue, Lilo runs away and encounters Stitch, who reveals his alien identity moments before Captain Gantu captures both of them. Stitch manages to escape before Gantu’s ship takes off and is confronted by Nani. Before he can explain, Jumba and Pleakley capture Stitch themselves. Nani demands that they help her rescue Lilo, but Jumba insists they only came for Stitch. When Nani breaks down, Stitch reminds Nani about ʻohana, a term for “family” he learned from Lilo, and convinces Jumba to help rescue Lilo.

Jumba, Pleakley, Stitch, and Nani give chase in Jumba’s spaceship and rescue Lilo. The Grand Councilwoman appears and prepares to take Stitch into custody and retire Gantu for kidnapping Lilo, but Lilo insists that, as Stitch is her pet under local law, he cannot be taken away.


Impressed with Stitch’s newfound civility and empathy, the Councilwoman decrees that Stitch will live in exile on Earth and be entrusted into the care of Lilo and Nani, and asks Cobra, who is revealed to be a former CIA agent whom she met in 1973, to watch over them. Together, they rebuild the house, and Jumba and Pleakley become members of Lilo and Stitch’s family. The film ends with various footage and pictures of Stitch and his new family’s life together.


Animation has been set so much in ancient, medieval Europe — so many fairy tales find their roots there, that to place it in Hawaiʻi was kind of a big leap. But that choice went to color the entire movie, and rewrite the story for us. – Chris Sanders

Inspired by the production of Dumbo, Michael Eisner decided the studio might try its hand at a smaller and less expensive film. Chris Sanders had created the character of Stitch for an unsuccessful children’s book pitch, so he adapted the story into a treatment for an animated feature. It originally took place in Kansas, but he changed the film’s setting to the Hawaiian island of Kauaʻi.

During production, a number of changes were made. Originally, Stitch was the leader of an intergalactic gang, and Jumba was one of his former cronies summoned by the Intergalactic Council to capture Stitch. In the film’s third act, Stitch, Nani, Jumba and Pleakley originally hijacked a Boeing 747 jet from Lihue Airport and flying it through downtown Honolulu to save Lilo. Following September 11, this sequence was revised so that Stitch instead flew a spaceship through the mountains of Kauaʻi.


Dean DeBlois, who had co-written Mulan with Sanders, was brought on to co-write and co-direct. The animation team visited Kauaʻi to research the locale, and their tour guide explained the meaning of ʻohana as it applies to extended families.


No matter where we went, our tour guide seemed to know somebody. He was really the one who explained to us the Hawaiian concept of ʻohana, a sense of family that extends far beyond your immediate relatives. That idea so influenced the story that it became the foundation theme, the thing that causes Stitch to evolve despite what he was created to do, which is destroy. – Dean DeBlois

Tia Carrere and Jason Scott Lee assisted with rewriting the Hawaiian characters’ dialogue in the proper colloquial dialect and adding Hawaiian slang.


It was the second of three Disney animated features produced primarily at the Florida animation studio located at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Sanders and DeBlois chose to use watercolor painted backgrounds for Lilo & Stitch, as opposed to the traditional gouache technique. Although watercolors had been used for the early Disney features Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, and Dumbo, the technique had been largely abandoned by the mid-1940s. Sanders preferred watercolors to evoke both the bright look of a storybook, necessitating the background artists to be trained in working with the medium.

Songs: The music was compsed by Alan Silvestri. It contains two original songs from the film written by Mark Kealiʻi Hoʻomalu and Silvestri, and performed by Kealiʻi Hoʻomalu and the Kamehameha Schools children’s chorus. The movie also contains five songs by Elvis Presley.

Voice Cast:

Chris Sanders as Stitch. At Disney he was a storyboard artist, artistic director, production designer, and character designer on Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Mulan. He later worked with DreamWorks on How to Train Your Dragon and The Croods. Daveigh Chase as Lilo Pelekai. She appeared as Samantha Darko in Donnie Darko, Samara Morgan in The Ring, and Rhonda Volmer on Big Love.

Tia Carrere as Nani Pelekai. She obtained her first big break as a regular on General Hospital. She played Cassandra Wong in the feature films Wayne’s World and Wayne’s World 2, Juno Skinner in True Lies, Cha Cha, in Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Sydney Fox in the television series Relic Hunter. David Ogden Stiers returns for his final Disney film as Dr. Jumba Jookiba.

Kevin McDonald as Agt. Wendell Pleakley. Best known as a member of The Kids in the Hall, he has appeared in several films and television shows such as That 70s Show and Sky High. Ving Rhames as Cobra Bubbles. He’s known for his role as Luther Stickell in the Mission: Impossible film series, as well as Dave, Pulp Fiction, Don King: Only in America, Rosewood, Con Air, Dawn of the Dead, and Bringing Out the Dead.

Kevin Michael Richardson as Captain Gantu. He’s a prolific voice actor, appearing in Mortal Kombat, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Crash Bandicoot, Halo 2, Ratchet & Clank, The Fairly OddParents, The Penguins of Madagascar, The Spectacular Spider-Man, Teen Titans. The Batman, Wolverine and the X-Men, The Super Hero Squad Show, Family Guy, The Boondocks Young Justice, Transformers: Prime, and Green Lantern: The Animated Series. Zoe Caldwell as the Grand Councilwoman. She has won four Tony Awards for her performances on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ Slapstick Tragedy, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Medea, and Master Class. She has also appeared on film in The Purple Rose of Cairo, Just a Kiss, and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

Jason Scott Lee as David Kawena. He appeared in small roles in Born in East L.A. and Back to the Future Part II. He played Bruce Lee in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and Mowgli in The Jungle Book. He appeared in Soldier and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny.

Critical Reception: Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 3.5 stars out of 4 and wrote “It’s one of the most charming feature-length cartoons of recent years—funny, sassy, startling, original and with six songs by Elvis.”

Legacy: The popularity of the film and characters led to an extensive franchise:


  • The direct-to-video sequel, Stitch! The Movie, was released on August 26, 2003.
  • A television series, Lilo & Stitch: The Series, which ran from September 20, 2003 to July 29, 2006.
  • Another direct-to-video sequel, Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch, was released on August 30, 2005.
  • A television film titled Leroy & Stitch, was released on June 23, 2006, as the conclusion to the TV series.


In the theme parks, Stitch is a popular character both as a meet-and-greet character and attractions. In the Magic Kingdom, he is featured in the attraction Stitch’s Great Escape. 1Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration was a short-lived stage show that ran from May 6, 2009 to June 27, 2009 at Magic Kingdom at the Walt Disney World Resort. Stitch Encounter is an interactive show similar to Turtle Talk with Crush that opened in 2006 at Hong Kong Disneyland at the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort. The Enchanted Tiki Room: Stitch Presents Aloha e Komo Mai! in Tokyo Disneyland. The Polynesian Resort at Walt Disney World has a restaurant named Ohana.

Video games: There were three official games released in 2002 to coincide with the film:

  • Disney’s Lilo & Stitch: Trouble in Paradise for PlayStation and Microsoft Windows
  • Disney’s Lilo & Stitch for Game Boy Advance
  • Disney’s Stitch: Experiment 626 for PlayStation 2.
  • Disney’s Stitch Jam
  • Stitch is also a summonable character in Kingdom Hearts II and appears along with his homeworld in Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep for the PlayStation Portable.
  • Lilo and Stitch both appear in the Nintendo 3DS game Disney Magical World and its sequel.
  • Stitch is also a playable character in the Disney Infinity series in the second game, Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes, and the series’ third and final game, Disney Infinity 3.0.

My take: I was prepared for Stitch to be annoying, but he was a lot subtler than I thought he was going to be. There are some outright laugh out loud moments. The watercolor backgrounds are gorgeous.  I also love the character designs. Nani has real proportions instead of the stick figures in other features

Next Week: Treasure Island… IN SPACE!