Spunky, mildly irreverent and completely hand-drawn, "Lilo & Stitch" represents a refreshing change of pace in Disney's recent animated output. This agreeably modest picture cleverly dovetails the antics of a berserk little space alien with a sympathetic look at two young sisters striving for a sense of family in Hawaii.

Spunky, mildly irreverent and completely hand-drawn, “Lilo & Stitch” represents a refreshing change of pace in Disney’s recent animated output. The second entry, after “Mulan,” from the studio’s Florida feature animation division, this agreeably modest picture cleverly dovetails the antics of a berserk little space alien with a sympathetic look at two young sisters striving for a sense of family in Hawaii. Given a distinctive feel by the lovely watercolor backgrounds and a half-dozen Elvis Presley tunes on the soundtrack, pic has a casual, freewheeling nature in contrast to the creeping grandiosity of some of Disney’s A-list animated titles. Very nice business should sustain throughout the summer, with ancillary longevity a given.

During the 10-minute pre-credits sequence, it’s hard to believe that one of the two title characters, a little devil called Stitch, is actually going to command centerscreen for the rest of the movie. A genetic experiment gone wrong, the little critter from the distant planet of Turo is horridly obnoxious on top of being wantonly destructive. But he’s clever enough to escape from the spaceship sending him into permanent exile and crash-land on Earth, which is snootily considered by the alien race to be a wildlife preserve where, due to repeated asteroid hits, life forms repeatedly “have to start all over again.”

The blue, big-eared, beclawed and toothsome creature, who eventually gets by as a dog but could also easily pass as one of the more fearsome Pokemon characters, winds up in a sleepy Hawaiian seaside community where pre-teen Lilo is having some problems she’d rather ignore. An outcast among the other girls at school, the parentless Lilo lives with her older sister Nani, who has come under investigation by the imposing social worker Bubbles for incompetent guardianship. The girls are constantly at each other’s throats, and Nani’s cluelessness about mothering is such that she is given three days by Bubbles to clean up her act or else.

Lilo’s adoption of Stitch only exacerbates the situation at first, since the indestructible beast was programmed to destroy everything in his sight. In short, it takes him no time to contend for the title of biggest problem child on Earth, although Lilo persists in seeing him as the answer to her prayer of finding a true and lasting friend. Pursued by the bumbling team of his Russian-accented inventor Jumba and an effete would-be Earth expert called Pleakley, Stitch creates plenty of mayhem but also develops a soft spot via his intense identification with the fairy tale character of the Ugly Duckling, making him feel that even he needs a family too.

Quite neatly, then, the desires of a lonely Hawaiian girl and a hyperactive space gremlin come to coincide and flower in a patched-together family structure that suits everyone’s needs just fine; “It’s little and broken — but still good,” affirms Lilo. Along the way, there’s some pleasant beachside musicalizing and a sharp surfing sequence featuring Nani’s former b.f. David, as well as the arrival of the Turo governing hierarchy intent upon taking Stitch back. But “E.T.” expectations are happily reversed in the interest of family values, however ad hoc and offbeat.

It’s possible that parents might have more trouble accepting the maniacal Stitch than will children, who will likely absorb him as just another member of Monsters, Inc. Character never softens much, but he does become domesticated, more or less, just as he learns to speak English. Still, he certainly ranks among the least overtly lovable protagonists ever to topline a Disney cartoon. Lilo’s innate optimism and hopefulness in the midst of utter domestic disarray make the girl a strongly sympathetic little leading lady, while Nani’s flaws are vividly realistic. Comic relief support is more than adequate.

Making their writing and directing debut, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, who headed the story team on “Mulan,” keep things moving briskly while commendably avoiding any special sentimental “We Are a Village” point-making, despite the obvious opportunity. Character designs are familiar enough, but backgrounds possess an unusual pastel quality that gives the film an inviting atmosphere all its own. Elvis songs deliver a kick as well as considerable humor, given the incongruity of their integration with the action.

Lilo & Stitch

Animated

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Walt Disney presentation. Produced by Clark Spencer. Directed, written by Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois, based on an original idea by Sanders. (Technicolor); editor, Darren Holmes; music.

Crew

Alan Silvestri; art director, Ric Sluiter; artistic coordinator, Jeff Dutton; production designer, Paul Felix; layout supervisor, Arden Chan; background supervisor, Robert E. Stanton; clean-up supervisors, Philip S. Boyd, Christine Lawrence-Finney; visual effects supervisor, Joseph F. Gilland; computer animation supervisor, Eric Guaglione; sound designer and supervisor (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Christopher Boyes; supervising sound editor, Frank Eulner. Reviewed at El Capitan Theater, L.A., June 11, 2002. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 85 MIN.

With

Voices: Lilo - Daveigh Chase Stitch - Christopher Michael Sanders Nani - Tia Carrere Jumba - David Ogden Stiers Pleakley - Kevin McDonald Cobra Bubbles - Ving Rhames Grand Councilwoman - Zoe Caldwell David Kawena - Jason Scott Lee Captain Gantu - Kevin Michael Richardson Rescue Lady - Susan Hegarty Mrs. Hasagawa - Amy Hill
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