Film Reviews

Poi Dog Pondering

It's a nice surprise when a seemingly innocuous cartoon inspires inner critical debate. For fun, let's let the coldly cynical voice speak first.

Somewhere within Disney studios there is a board room, and doubtless there's some scary honcho in there who clobbers a table full of yes-people with market research stats before he allows a nickel of development money to change hands. With regard to mounting the inventive new animated comedy Lilo & Stitch, his spiel may have sounded something like this: "All right, gang, despite being exciting, whimsical, smartly designed and quasi-mystical, our company's Atlantis sank last year at the box office. This year we need to focus more cautiously on our primary target demographic. I'd say she's a young, bronze-skinned woman from a somewhat dysfunctional home, with a trendy 'kick-ass' attitude and the Tasmanian Devil tattooed slightly north of her keister. Now you tell me, what narrative devices and iconography can we utilize to corral her keister -- plus as many auxiliary butts as possible -- into our exhibitors' seats?"

With that chill running through the spine, let's also consider a warmer perspective: Somewhere in the world outside the Magic Kingdom, there are bored people. Blissfully unaware of the suits who select the multiplex fodder they'll be mentally munching, these people decide that Lilo & Stitch is worth a small chunk of their hard-earned. They buy tickets, relax their respective keisters, and discover a charming and funny movie, wherein a pug-nosed and pugnacious little Hawaiian girl bearing the boy's name of Lilo (voiced by Daveigh Chase) and her barely adult sister and guardian, Nani (Tia Carrere), accidentally adopt a massively destructive galactic mutant named Experiment 626 (co-director Christopher Michael Sanders), which they assume to be a weird dog, awarding it the unlikely moniker of Stitch. As the sisters' parentless home is threatened by a determined social worker named Cobra Bubbles (Ving Rhames) and Stitch is hunted by his literally four-eyed alien maker, Jumba Jookiba (Disney fave David Ogden Stiers), the audience is treated to copious giggles and insistent messages about the importance of family -- or, in Hawaiian, 'ohana.

Part manic Beavis, part obnoxious Shrek, not at all squishy E.T., and heir apparent to Taz, this Stitch creature is sure to be a hit with fans of pointless devastation (heck, he even looks like a cross between bin Laden and Bush). Happily, the fiendish "dog" is also at the center of a terrific tropical romp, sharing with Lilo a vastly creative territory seemingly untainted by studio megabucks or manipulative schmaltz. In truth, these two characters are simply the latest entries in the jam-packed cinema of outsiders -- she beats the crap out of a token white girl, and he wants to destroy San Francisco -- but their funky misadventures should surprise tech-heads who mistakenly believe that 2-D animation is running out of gas. The movie rolls out grandly.

With co-writer and director Dean Deblois, Sanders ransacks popular culture to deliver a thoroughly modern fairy tale. Although there are loose associations to The Ugly Duckling (which becomes Stitch's bible), Lilo & Stitch is more concerned with blazing new ground than rehashing the overly familiar. Evidence abounds in the project's sheer candor, as Lilo tells local hunk David (Jason Scott Lee) that her sister appreciates his butt, or Nani flounces about in clothes lifted from her tiny sister's wardrobe. The romance of Ariel and Belle isn't the point here, nor is the hard-won independence of Pocahontas or Mulan. These Hawaiian heroines are part of a new tradition based on the grit of the here and now, not some luminous, far-off storybook scenario.

There's genuine pathos to the familial squabbles -- heck, it's no stretch to imagine Nani as Lilo's teenage mom -- yet a scintillating supporting cast keeps the film's tender moments from becoming too moody. Looking like an antler-bedecked Kamino cloner from Star Wars: Episode II -- indeed, many of these groovy space creatures and sets verge perilously upon copyright infringement -- Grand Council Woman (Zoe Caldwell) delivers the icy authoritarianism of The Weakest Link's Anne Robinson. The standout is her whipping boy, and Jumba's hapless sidekick, Pleakley (Kevin McDonald), basically a one-eyed interstellar dong who enjoys cross-dressing and believes Earth to be a wildlife preserve for mosquitoes.

As if it weren't already weird enough, Lilo & Stitch also wears its Elvis fetish with pride. Inexplicably, Lilo is mad for the King, who keeps her island home from becoming just a blue Hawaii. Presley's songs are littered through the movie to weird but amusing effect, but it's his iconic presence as a "model citizen" that strikes the deepest nerve, with Lilo desperate to find her inner King, a figure to give her hope and set her straight. When the chuckles subside, this slyly packaged show is all about integrity, identity and community -- the goals of anyone who's all shook up.

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Gregory Weinkauf