The Post Renaissance era is a strange era for Walt Disney Animation Studios. After triumphing in the 90s with classics like "The Little Mermaid", "Beauty and the Beast", and "The Lion King", they started to broaden their scope with animated films that were ambitious but clumsy like "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" and "Brother Bear" before a bad management shakeup led to bad films like "Home on the Range" and "Chicken Little" that would eventually lead to better management taking over and the studio finding their footing again with "Bolt" and "The Princess and the Frog". Among the many animated films that Disney Animation put out in the 2000s, "Lilo and Stitch" is the one that I think stands the tallest out of all of them. This is quite a special film to watch and every time I see it, I grow to love it even more. Not only is this my favorite film from Walt Disney Animation Studios in the 2000s, but it's also one of my favorite films from them in general. I love it a lot and it's a film that keeps getting better with every rewatch.
Deep in outer space, the Galactic Federation led by the Grand Councilwoman (Zoe Caldwell) has banished a crazy and naughty blue alien named Experiment 626 (Chris Sanders) to an asteroid and placed its creator Dr. Jumba Jookiba (David Ogden Stiers) under arrest. During the transport, however, 626 escapes, steals a ship and ends up crash-landing on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. While there, he is put in an animal shelter and adopted by a girl named Lilo (Daviegh Chase) who takes a liking to the alien and names him Stitch. Lilo however isn't like any other girl or her friends as she tends to be very strange and is living under the care of her older teenaged sister Nani (Tia Carrere) after both of their parents tragically died and Nani is under the watch of a social worker named Cobra Bubbles (Ving Rhames) who is concerned Lilo isn't being well taken care of. From there, Nani tries to show Bubbles that she can take care of Lilo while Lilo is trying to teach how to behave unaware that Stitch is being hunted by Jumba and Earth alien expert Pleakley (Kevin McDonald) to be captured and brought back to the council in exchange for Jumba's freedom.
This is such a delightful animated film to watch. At a time when Walt Disney Animation Studios was starting to flounder with some strange films in their catalog, this one has really stood tall over the years and has gotten better with age. One thing that really struck me when I was rewatching the film was how simple and laid back the story was. Unlike other films from the studio, this is a film that didn't have a grand plot or anything too daring yet works so wonderfully well with its down to Earth and slice of life approach. The film started off initially as a children's book idea by director Chris Sanders before he and director Dean DeBlois turned it into a film and the simplistic nature really shows. Alongside the funny moments where Lilo is trying to teach Stitch to behave and even some hilarious moments with encounters from Jumba and Pleakley in some terrible disguises, there's a lot of softer and tender moments including one where Stitch becomes infatuated with the story of The Ugly Duckling. Speaking of which, the whole film really uses the ugly duckling trope very well and it reminded me a lot of "Dumbo" considering both are tales where a misfit is initially shunned by society before finding his true calling and place in the world with both still feeling fresh all these years later. It shouldn't be surprising as Sanders even throws in a small cameo of Dumbo in the form of a toy in Lilo's bedroom as proof of this. Both Sanders and DeBlois know how to take common story tropes and present them in a unique manner which they demonstrated yet again at DreamWorks with "How to Train Your Dragon". I also love how respectful this film is to Hawaiian culture as well. The film does contain typical Hawaiian tropes like hula dancers, surfing, and the song Aloha Oe, but it treats them with respect and dignity rather than stereotypically using them and it was very nice to see. I also greatly admire how fantastic the script for this film is with each detail being precise and not being sugar-coated and dumbed down for the audience. When we are eventually told what happened to Lilo and Nani's parents, it's summed up in a simple single sentence and it's perfect. I love smart screenplays like that. I also adored the animation in this film. This is a film that was deliberately modeled after Chris Sanders' art style and it really gets to shine here. You got to see glimpses of his style in "Mulan" where he worked as a story supervisor, but his designs and look are more obvious here. His character designs are so unique and fresh from other Disney films and really stand out with their distinct eyes and shapes. I also especially loved the decision to return to watercolor backgrounds in this film.
Back when Walt Disney Animation Studios was starting to make films in 1937, they used watercolor paint for their backgrounds which is very evident in films like "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Dumbo" before switching to the easier to use gouache paints. The filmmakers brought it back for the look of this film and it is simply gorgeous. The Hawaiian islands look so beautiful here with the blue oceans and the green forests and it just looks so inviting. Then there are the characters that are also fantastic. Each character in this film is someone that stands out and works off every single character well with the troubles they share. Lilo and Nani are the two best characters in the film with Lilo being the strange girl that no one likes who's obsessed with voodoo, taking pictures of fat people, and listening to Elvis while Nani being the stressed older sister trying desperately to make it work while being frustrated with her sister's antics. Yet the two have a great bond where it's clear they love each other very much and are trying to do their best in the difficult situation. This is a prime example of how to handle sibling relationships as well as an older sibling being the guardian of a younger sibling after the parents tragically passed. Even Stitch has a great arc being another ugly duckling who is shunned by the aliens for being too naughty before growing to realize the damage he's done and trying to desperately find a place in the world. It also helps that he's never annoying or too cute which is ironic given that Sanders initially created the voice to annoy co-workers at the studio. Even Jumba and Pleakley are a dynamic duo that works well off each other with Jumba being the one who wants to capture Stitch without thinking about the consequences while Pleakley wants Stitch to be captured without problems worried about humans on the planet since they are related to the mosquito group which they have declared an endangered species. The latter joke has a great payoff in the end and it's just fantastic.
Honestly, fantastic is the best word to describe "Lilo and Stitch" as well. The story is a perfect and funny tale of misfits trying to fit in, the animation is beautiful and filled with a unique look and gorgeous artistry, and the characters are all funny and fleshed out with distinctive personalities and believable arcs. This is seriously a highlight of the films from Walt Disney Animation Studios and I cannot recommend it enough. In a sea of almost sixty movies throughout the years, this is one film that won't be left behind or forgotten any time soon.