Lilo & Stitch – Celebrating Ohana 20 Years Later

The 20 year Anniversary of Lilo & Stitch is a timely reminder in this day and age the importance of finding your family and that nobody gets left behind or forgotten. 

Let’s be honest for a moment before we start to reminisce. As an adult just trying to function in today’s fast-paced, no breaks world, remembering even the most important of dates can be a challenge. It’s no surprise many might miss today, June 21st, as the 20th anniversary of the worldwide release of Lilo & Stitch

Many of us have grown up and found our priorities changing from when this film first appeared two decades ago. Still, paying homage to this film today may be more important than we might think.

And yes, this is probably going to make more than a few of us feel our age. But it is also my hope that this anniversary will serve as a timeless reminder of what’s important. That it brings attention to current events that are brimming with echoes of the past. 

But let’s start at the beginning. 

Lilo & Stitch is a 2002 animated film produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation and released by Walt Disney features. It was one of the few films of Disney’s post-Renaissance era of animation that saw unprecedented success. Not only was it a box office success and earned a 75th Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature. The film also spawned a franchise that included three film sequels and three television series. 

However, even with these impressive accolades in mind, it’s not the sequels or series that has made Lilo & Stitch an important favourite in many people’s childhoods in the early 2000s and beyond.

Lilo shows Stitch a photo of Elvis, with a pointer. Lilo & Stitch.
Lilo and Stitch – courtesy of Animation World Network

For many of us growing up in this time frame who probably pay special homage to this film even in adulthood, the release of this film served as a landmark. Our hero on screen wasn’t an adult on an epic quest to chase their life-long dream or save the day. For the first time, it was someone who was our age or close to who wanted nothing more than to have a friend who liked her for herself. 

As a young, weird, brown kid who was almost the exact same age as Lilo when the film released, this spoke to me more than any Disney Renaissance movie ever could. 

There’s something about the way that Lilo & Stitch focuses its lens on Lilo and her older sister, Nani, that recenters a narrative with intergalactic themes. Though the film might open in space, the story is one that is all about home. Nani does her best to find work and keep their house after the passing of their parents. Suddenly finding herself in a position of adulthood. With new responsibilities long before it was supposed to be her time. Now that many of us are older, it is so much easier to empathise with Nani and her struggle to not only step into this role while coping with loss but also take care of a younger sibling all at the same time. 

Lilo’s own struggles with finding friends while also processing the loss of her parents are also a central part of the narrative. It is something many of us connected with when we were kids. The essence of wanting to be accepted for who we are is something that a person never outgrows. 

The relationship between Nani and Lilo is something that I find myself appreciating much more, too. They definitely have their arguments and are trying to find their stride now that it’s just them against the world. It is easy to see that they have a strong bond. Both of them are doing everything they can to keep their family together. To keep moving forward even when dealing with drastic changes to their everyday lives and futures as a whole. 

Lilo & Nani send flowers into the night sky. Lilo & Stitch
Lilo and Nani – courtesy of YouTube

It would be a disservice to skip over the growth demonstrated by Stitch throughout the film. We see him go from a creation without any real, tangible goals and no place and nobody to call his own to a friend and family member to Lilo who actively wants a home. Stitch, without the aid of magic or enchantments, transforms in a way which shows that regardless of where we’ve come from and where we find ourselves, everyone is capable of making the decision and doing the work to be the best version of themselves. 

It is also as we see the integration of Stitch into Lilo and Nani’s circle that we see the true theme of home and family begin to emerge. Even before Stitch begins truly wanting to find a home, he has already been offered and given “ohana”. They make the decision to allow him to stay and not leave him behind. 

Home and family are not things that are earned or that have to be achieved by hitting a ‘milestone’. They are active choices that we make every day. They are oftentimes things that we find or discover along the way. 

Everyone’s choices and active values throughout the film are what lead to misadventures, mistakes, moments to remember, and ultimate happy ending which make this movie its heart. 

Stitch reads a novel to small goslings. Lilo & Stitch
Stitch and the goslings – courtesy of Character Design References

There is also a subtext of the film that now strikes a chord with me. Lilo is also facing the changing reality of not just her family but also her physical home of Kauaʻi, Hawai’i.  

One of Lilo’s many interests is to take photos of tourists and their blunders around the island. There are fan theories as to what this could mean in the larger content of the film and Lilo’s personality. My opinion is that we need to examine scenes that were deleted from the film. It’ll help us to get a better understanding of what’s at play here. 

On the surface it seems like this is included to simply give Lilo another facet that makes her “odd”. However, when digging a bit deeper into deleted scenes and the development process of the movie, it makes more sense that this could be a remnant of the production team’s attempt to add a more critical and mature aspect to the movie. When taking into consideration a deleted scene that includes Lilo facing exoticism from tourists and subsequently playing a prank on them when finally getting fed-up with their antics, it’s not too far fetched to consider this could be a more head-on address of what locals of Hawai’i must face in their homeland. 

There are other moments and references to Hawai’i tourism that did make it into the film. Moments like Nani and David’s job at a “fake luau” restaurant. And while this scene is from 20 years ago, it is no less true that locals are still dealing with the ramifications of tourism and other issues that are unique to their experiences as Native Hawaiians.  

Lilo & Stitch Concept Art. Stitch sits on a rock, while Lilo points out a fish to him.
Lilo and Stitch concept art – courtesy of The Art Behind The Magic

So, where does that leave us? 

Today is certainly a wonderful opportunity to appreciate and remember what the film Lilo & Stitch means to you. There are also many ways to take it another step further. 

If you’re feeling so inclined, maybe take some time to dig deeper into the production history of the movie and learn more about the animation process. Especially with the rise then fall and then kind-of-rise again with 2D animation in current media. There’s also some interesting history behind the design and music in the film that’s worth learning about. In addition to many interviews and behind-the-scenes currently floating around out there. 

If you’ve got the spoons to do so, consider reading up on what local Hawaiians are needing from others to help their community. They are addressing the effects of over-tourism, a changing climate, and the history of their people and island. Even if one is unable to directly support, there are so many ways to properly learn and appreciate Hawaiian culture and history by taking some time out of your day. 

Lilo & Stitch is not only a gorgeous piece of animation that has earned its slot in the Disney Animation crown. It is an excellent example of subverting classical narrative style and themes to make something unique and timeless. We can appreciate the relationships between characters and their efforts to do right by each other. Even if those relationships aren’t perfect and we sometimes get lost along the way. Home and family are still out there. We just have to find them. 

Regardless of how you choose to remember a film that may have meant a great deal to you once upon a time or even to this day, we hope you’ll always remember the main pillars of the filml. 

“Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.”

For more on Lilo & Stitch, click here!

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