After it’s world-conquering run in the ’90s, Walt Disney Animation suffered a major downturn with a series of expensive flops like Treasure Planet, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Home on the Range that would kill hand-drawn animation at the studio for half a decade. But in between these epic disasters with epic ambitions, Disney pulled out one last hit with a small-scale story about a girl and her dog — or whatever Stitch is — and it’s quite possibly the best movie they ever made.
Lilo and Stitch the story of a genetically engineered killing machine who escapes from custody on another planet and the little girl who adopts him. At least, that’s what the story is on the surface. But Lilo and Stitch is one of Disney’s finest moments because it’s really two different movies. For kids, it’s a slapsticky adventure full of wacky aliens. But watching it as an adult, a whole other picture becomes apparent — a much darker, sadder story about characters left adrift in the world, a story that makes its happy ending beautifully cathartic. And those are just some of the nuggets we found looking at Lilo and Stitch through adult eyes, along with plenty of background gags, cultural references, and other subtleties we missed the first time around.
Lilo and her big sister, Nani, are in dire straits even before Stitch drops from the sky. They live alone — we later learn their parents recently died, but adults will probably have guessed that already — and Nani can barely keep food on the table. As a result, there’s the looming threat the state will take Lilo away. And it only gets worse when Stitch gets Nani booted from her job and every interview she takes to find new work.
To kids, at least ones who haven’t experienced it firsthand, this situation may not seem any darker than Cinderella’s. But adults should recognize it’s all too real. Lilo is full of weird, dark behavior, like making voodoo dolls of her classmates. But that’s not just cartoon wackiness — this is a realistic little girl acting out deep, deep trauma.
But the genius of writer-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois is shielding children from these disturbing elements while still giving adults an emotionally satisfying story that respects their intelligence. They do this by keeping the subtext in subtle hints that kids may miss but will pierce adult hearts like little daggers. Just look at how after revealing what happened to her parents, Lilo asks Stitch, “What happened to yours? I hear you cry at night. Do you dream about them? I know that’s why you wreck things and push me.” She’s obviously speaking from experience.
We first see Lilo in all her weirdness when she arrives late for dance practice. She explains the reason for her tardiness at great length, saying that it’s “Sandwich Day.” In other words, she has to give Pudge the fish a sandwich, and since she was out of peanut butter, she had to run to the store and buy a new jar, all so the fish could get his treat. When the teacher tries to figure out why Pudge needs a sandwich, Lilo calms down enough to very matter-of-factly explain, “Pudge controls the weather.”
It’s a hilarious scene, but if you pay attention, it’s also deeply sad. We later learn that Lilo’s parents died by losing control of their car in a rainstorm. Their death obviously affected Lilo deeply, but a kid’s mind doesn’t react to trauma quite the same way as an adult’s. Her sandwich ritual is apparently some kind of coping mechanism, trying to process her parents’ weather-related tragedy by going to great lengths from keeping it from happening to anyone else.
10. Stitch Nurse Svg