So I have officially regressed thirteen years. Do you remember what you were up to in 2002? I was in high school. It was great and awful in about equal measure. One of the great things that year was that in June, a little animated film came out that surprised everybody by being so good; that film was ‘Lilo & Stitch’. Obviously this film was officially pitched at a much younger audience than my fourteen-year-old self, but I. loved. it. I bought it on DVD – it was one the first DVDs I ever bought. I made a t-shirt with Stitch on it. In the way of eccentric teenagers, I wandered around speaking as if I had a gob of spit at the back of my throat in imitation of the titular alien character.
Recently I re-watched the film (in a continuation of Herr Noak’s extra-German-cultural-education) and found myself captivated once more, identifying in a surprisingly strong way with a tiny blue alien. This is undoubtedly the reason that Disney has been so successful in America: their children’s films often have a layer of meaning that has been included specifically for grown-up children, too.
Stitch is a tiny ball of destruction who’s prevented from exercising his destructive tendencies by (1) the sheer luck of crash-landing on a Hawaiian island and (2) the desire to avoid capture. Nevertheless, there’s an element of ‘wrecking everything he touches’ which propels the plot of the movie along. What adult could say that she doesn’t worry about wrecking everything she touches, sometimes? And that it seems that sheer luck, grace, or avoiding public embarrassment is the only thing that keeps us from this destructive tendency? In addition, Stitch, or Experiment 626 as he is known to the Galactic Council, was created this way by an evil genius, and it’s only by ‘finding a family’ that this tendency towards destruction is overcome. I could write an entire theological reflection on this (remarkably Christian) anthropology (alienthropology?) – but for your sakes, I won’t. Just have a think.
If you’ve seen the film you’re aware it concerns themes of ‘what makes up a family’ and of families who are just trying to get by after serious trauma. In the case of Lilo, she’s been cared for by her older sister Nani, who struggles to hold down a job and prove to the social worker (one Mr Cobra Bubbles) that she shouldn’t be housed with a foster family. It’s hard stuff, and the film deals with it directly through Lilo’s and Nani’s experiences and in the outsider perspective of Stitch, this family’s new ‘dog’. It’s interesting to me how almost none of Disney’s protagonists come from anything like a ‘stable, two-parent family’. This film especially displays a realism about the conflicted, traumatic experience that many people have as a part of their childhood, and yet hopefulness about one’s ability to heal from this trauma and find friends that are as close as family, if not closer.
In sum, there are many reasons to love this film: its sci-fi quirks and in-jokes, delightfully unfussy animation, slapstick humour, and truly heartbreaking attempts to reconcile the dangers of growing up with the safety-obsessed world of adults, along which children and aliens find themselves walking a tightrope. Or the attention that the writers and creators actually paid to Hawaiian culture in a sense that goes beyond caricature. Or the affirming body-imagery (no sylph-like Disney Princesses here). It’s not perfect: it risks playing into notions of ‘ideal family’ by the lack of the same, and – lest we forget – it’s a children’s film, so the script is simple and sometimes lacks nuance. Also, I think we can be pretty sure that despite Lilo’s devotion to him, Elvis Presley was not a model citizen.
It’s not likely that I’m going to break out the Stitch t-shirt anytime soon, but I will warn those of you who have to put up with me on a daily basis that I may or may not force you to watch the film with me. Those of you who know me well know that my pretend-alien voice is never very far away, so don’t be surprised if you hear it from time to time.