Disney’s Hidden Gem: Remembering Lilo and Stitch 15 years later

Could Lilo and Stitch be this generation’s feminist animated film? Nearly 15 years ago Disney released Lilo and Stitch; a quirky film about a young Hawaiian girl who lives with her 19-year-old sister and their strange pet Stitch. The film takes places in Kauai, Hawa, showing many of the traditions of Hawaiians and the growing problem of tourism. It was written and directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, who did a great job weaving together this nuanced narrative. Like many Disney films produced in this era, it strayed from traditional fairy tale narratives and is widely seen as one of Disney’s most progressive films in terms of characters, topics covered,and aesthetics.

One of the things that sticks out in Lilo and Stitch is the way the film handles real world issues. While many films highlight family as a central theme, this is unique because it shows the gritty reality of many low income PoC families in contemporary America. Nani is struggling to keep a roof over their head while making sure 6-year-old Lilo isn’t put into the foster care system. Nani is depicted as stressed and trying to make ends meet while still being both loving and fiercely protective of her sister. By the end of film, it is evident that the main message Lilo and Stitch portrayes is to recognize that family is foremost important. A family doesn’t have to be perfect nor does it have to be made up of a mom and dad. By the end of the film, our heroes have made one family consisting Lilo, Nani, Stitch, Pleakley, and Jumba.

One of the most noticeable things in Lilo and Stitch is the promotion of body positivity; a movement that encourages visibility of bodies that are not considered attractive by society. Many Disney heroines are teenagers, however they do not look like average teenagers. Disney heroines have bright eyes, neatly placed hair, and small waists. However, Lilo and Stitch was one of the best films for body diversity, as shown through the appearances of the Pelekai sisters. Lilo is a chubby 6-year-old who is noticeably small compared to some of the other characters in the Disney universe. The Pelekai sisters have almond-shaped eyes and big noses reminiscent of features you would see on native Hawaiians. Nani strays from the princess archetype by being slightly muscular, and in the film she is shown to surf and lift heavy objects. Nani, like her sister has thick dark hair and dark skin. The people who exist in Lilo’s village have a range of races, body types, and hair types.

Moreover, Lilo is shown to be an avid photographer only capturing fat people as her subject matter. Making them muses, desirable to be seen and appreciated. This breaks free of the Disney archetype as casting fat people as solely antagonists, for example, Ursula in The Little Mermaid or Red Queen in the animated Alice in Wonderland film.

In Lilo and Stitch, we see our female characters take leadership positions, work, and express a range of emotions. There are no damsels in distress here. You see women own businesses, lead aliens, and live out their mundane lives. Nani, though the authoritative figure in the Pelekai household, is still characterized by realistic qualities. She’s a young woman dealing with tragedy, still coming into her own. The writers gave Nani a full range of feelings, actions, and even a love interest that didn’t overshadow her development. Lilo is shown to be shy and retreating, which is believable for a girl of her age. She believes that no one should be cast away, as we see her explore her feelings of inadequacy throughout the film.

In conclusion, I love the hand drawn look and aesthetic of Lilo and Stitch. The characters feel familiar and in many ways are, the film having been one of the most successful of all Disney’s post-renaissance films, having spanned several platforms, and becoming recognizable worldwide. It’s definitely one of Disney’s most progressive films as it tackles real world issues, body diversity, and female relationships. While it is approaching it’s 15-year anniversary this June, I hope you give this film a chance, as it’s one of the last 2D animated films that Disney produced.It’s sweet, quirky, and most importantly: centered around two strong women of colour.

Author: Brittney Maddox

Editor: Mara Zain

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Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a med student tuned Executive Director of Off Colour!

You’ve probably seen her on Twitter and TikTok, both @MxKantEven, or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels.

From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.

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