Disney's latest animated feature, "Lilo & Stitch", is an entertaining and heartwarming blend of innovation and tradition. Written and directed by Dean Deblois and Chris Sanders (whose previous writing credits includes "Mulan"), "Lilo & Stitch" has the distinction of being the first Disney animation not based on literary material. To further drive home this point, the early marketing of the film featured Stitch, the bad-mannered and strange-looking alien main character, infiltrating classic Disney features, such as creating a panic at Simba's 'circle of life' ceremony in "The Lion King" or causing a chandelier to fall in the "Beauty and the Beast" ballroom scene. However, despite its iconoclastic titular character, "Lilo & Stitch" ends up adhering to the tried-and-true Disney formula with additional doses of cuteness thrown in for good measure. Your love/tolerance for these two aspects will ultimately determine whether or not you enjoy "Lilo & Stitch".
The story begins on the far-off planet of Tura, where scientist Jumba (voiced by David Ogden Stiers, last seen in "The Majestic") is on trial for creating a bio-weapon through genetic manipulation-- Stitch (voiced by co-writer Chris Sanders), or as he as known to the galactic authorities, 'Experiment 626'. Jumba is found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, while Stitch is sent into exile. However, while being transported to a remote asteroid, Stitch manages to escape and crash-lands in Hawaii.
There he is mistaken for a stray dog and adopted by a spirited little girl named Lilo (Daveigh Chase of "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence"). However, Lilo's home life is far from ideal, as her guardian, older sister Nani (Tia Carrere of TV's "Relic Hunter"), is having numerous challenges holding a steady job and maintaining the household. This situation does not escape the attention of social worker Cobra Bubbles (Ving Rhames, heard recently in "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within"), who threatens to put Lilo into a foster home if Nani doesn't get her act together. Unfortunately, Stitch's proclivity towards mischief only makes things worse for Nani and Lilo, which is compounded when the aliens send a team to retrieve the wayward bio-weapon, which includes a deal-cutting Jumba and his spineless handler Pleakley (Kevin McDonald of "Kids in the Hall" fame). Thankfully, Lilo and Nani have an ally in surfer dude David Kawena (Jason Scott Lee of "Dragon"), who holds particular affection for Nani.
Essentially "E.T." in Disney clothing, "Lilo & Stitch" revolves around the concept of ohana, which means family, something that both titular characters end up finding in both each other and those around them. Another interesting aspect of the script has Stitch coming to terms with his raison d'être as a weapon, though it falls short of how the same material was handled in the under-appreciated "The Iron Giant". But outside of these more serious themes, the overall tone is light and bouncy, with plenty of humor stemming from the disruptive yet cute antics of Lilo and Stitch, as well as numerous pop culture references, from "Pulp Fiction" to "Godzilla" to "Baywatch". The fun atmosphere is also helped by the use of Elvis Presley songs throughout the film's soundtrack.
"Lilo & Stitch" also makes full use of the Disney formula. Fiercely independent main characters who nobody else likes? Check. Main characters with no parents and are under the care of a surrogate, such as an uncle or a sibling? Check. Villains with funny accents? Check. Villain's sidekick who dishes out comic relief instead of being truly evil? Check. Chiseled love interest? Check. Musical set pieces? Check. Thankfully, despite the adherence to formula doesn't detract too much from the film, as "Lilo & Stitch" manages to keep the singing and dancing animals/inanimate objects to a minimum and unwarranted sentimentality in check.
If you enjoyed "Monsters, Inc.", you will probably find a lot to like in "Lilo & Stitch". Offering the same blend of cute antics, humor, and heart, this latest animated offering from Disney is one good reason for the whole family to head out to the local megaplex this summer.