Thoughts On: Lilo & Stitch (2002)
A troublesome young girl adopts an exiled alien.
I often forget how good Lilo & Stitch is. It’s a subtle film with many sparkling gems of comedy, action, world design and characterisation hidden within its narrative. There is nothing you could then really fault with this movie apart from small elements of narrative design that seemingly leave plot holes. However, the motif you will be critiquing by pulling Lilo & Stitch apart like this, for example, by suggesting that it was absurd that Stitch landed in Hawaii, that Bubbles was assign to Lilo, that Pleakie and Jumba are never noticed, that so many things just keep going wrong–by breaking this narrative down as such, you will essentially be critiquing the use of coincidence. And whilst this may seem like a valid critique, I think the use of coincidence, accidents and absurd mishaps in this narrative are consciously applied for a specific reason.
We’ll start with an open question. Why does Bubbles, an ex-C.I.A operative who once contacted aliens and saved the world, and who has probably retired to Hawaii, work for a child protection agency? Would the American government ever really let someone retire with the secrets that he holds? Why does he need to work at all?
You could suggest that Bubbles isn’t actually retired and assume that the U.S government didn’t somehow miss alien spaceships crash landing on their territory. Instead of inciting a huge military movement, maybe the government sent in a few discreet, high-level operatives to deal with the situation? This certainly makes a lot of sense and is actually supported by the end of the film.
Whilst Bubbles says he is an ex-operative, he also says here that “this won’t be easy to explain back at headquarters”. Is he referring to the C.I.A? The social services? We can’t know for definite, but it certainly makes more sense that he tells the C.I.A about an alien exile family programme as opposed to the social services, which seemingly confirms that he still has active links to them.
However, whilst we could claim that this is true, why does Bubbles show up at Lilo’s house as a social worker before Stitch is even adopted by Lilo?
This is what throws us into a bit of trouble again. However, let us take a step back from this small issue and take a look at the wider narrative of Lilo & Stitch.
Lilo, a highly imaginative young girl who has lost her parents and is in the care of her older sister, adopts an alien that, whilst it starts as another ingredient in their chaotic lives, eventually becomes the glue that holds her broken family together. This is a typical narrative of Disney, one that features broken families re-forming with integral alien (this time literally so) additions. Lilo & Stitch is then yet another Disney film about conflicts within a family, many of which stem from its youngest members. Much like various other Disney films (Monsters Inc., Aladdin, Cinderella, Pinocchio, Toy Story, Alice In Wonderland) Lilo & Stitch builds a world around the subjective unconscious or perspective of this main character. As a result, we can interpret this narrative to be a projection, or an impressionistic capturing, of Lilo’s inner conflicts.
When we understand this, many of the plot holes become obvious elements clearly designed around this premise. With cross-dressing aliens invading, C.I.A investigations, pet dogs who are filled with destructive badness (though not entirely), it is then evident that this is a narrative that Lilo may have imagined. And in implying and utilising this, the screenwriters have not only been able to create a fun movie that appeals to children, but one that also reveals, as suggested, Lilo’s inner conflicts.
So, when we come back to this point in the narrative where Bubbles shows up before Stitch, we can assume that this is around the point that reality is abandoned after it has only recently been introduced with our intro to Lilo:
In such, after being confronted by the presence of Bubbles, Lilo starts to imagine things, or, to better phrase things, the narrative starts projecting her imagination. This is why the C.I.A and aliens start to involve themselves in the narrative. We can find further evidence for this moments before our previous image:
This fade from Jumba to the fish is suggestive of a few things when we take into account this scene…
… in which Lilo explains why she feeds her fish: “Pudge controls the weather”. Swimming in the ocean, Lilo seems to let her imagination run wild, personifying and giving God-like purpose to the animals she encounters. To juxtapose a curtain of these creatures with Jumba…
… maybe suggests that they are connected; that maybe the whole introduction of Stitch’s escape is an imagined sequence of Lilo’s – one that masks characteristics of her persona. Whilst this certainly sounds far-fetched, there is a concrete connection between Lilo and Stitch: they are both ugly ducklings, abandoned (to a certain extent).
Before moving on, the impact of this reference on the narrative must be explored. The ugly duckling sounds like a somewhat fantastical, yet simple, tale about finding a family. However, there is a significance in the use of a duckling that makes things a little more complex. Ducklings, like goslings, will imprint when they hatch. This means that they will bind themselves to the first larger animal than themselves that they see, despite species, and imitate it as if it were its mother. This is exactly why you can find numerous examples of ducklings following humans and dogs like they were its mother…
Whilst humans do not behave precisely in this manner, the phenomena of imprinting is one that will resonate with people because we too bind to bigger, wiser people; parents, friends, siblings, etc.
This is what we see throughout Lilo & Stitch, but with added conflicts. These conflicts essentially stem from the fact that some ducklings are ugly and can get lost.
When we say ‘ugly’, we are not really referring to a duckling’s looks, instead, their inner make-up; there is something about them that doesn’t fit in with everyone else…
… and maybe even seems wrong…
When we combine these two details, the duckling imprinting and the fact that it is ugly, it becomes clear that something has gone wrong with the duckling’s ‘construction’. So, when we come back to this image…
… what is being represented is the link between Stitch’s literal exile and Lilo’s social exile. The two reflect one another because we are seeing a projection of Lilo’s imagination, one that uses Jumba as a metaphor for an absent parent, in the opening sequence.
Just like Stitch was created, so was Lilo, but she was, inadvertently and unfortunately, raised not just by Nani, her sister, but by tragedy after her parents died. Jumba as a representative of this hole is then not so much a parent, but a social situation that constructs little monsters.
Having ‘imprinted’ onto this void constructed by a ‘mad scientist’, both Lilo and Stitch become lost ugly ducklings in need of a new family, even if it is a seemingly absurd one, to follow through life.
Recognising this core element of Lilo & Stitch will then clarify further the role of coincidence in this narrative. In such, what you will see throughout this movie is Nani constantly struggling to make her and Lilo’s life functional, but having everything messed up by Lilo and Stitch…
However, neither Lilo or Stitch intentionally ruin everything, it just seems that calamity follows them wherever they go and through whatever they try to do. This is what makes them both little monsters and ugly ducklings; they often go about things the wrong way, and even when they are doing good, the world around them seems to somehow find and poke at their holes and weaknesses – a good example of this being Stitch and the flashing cameras in the beach scene:
Lilo & Stitch is then a clear parable about a ‘problem child’. They have their ups and their downs, and if you get to know them, they are good kids at heart. However, there is constant drama and conflict following their every footstep. This is what Lilo, with Stitch as an extension of herself, represent. The final lesson of Lilo & Stitch then concerns an embrace of the problem child, the little monster, as an ugly duckling who is lost. They need both stability and change in their life as well as an understanding and supportive social group. In other words, they need new Mother Ducks to imprint upon and follow.
It’s this that lies at the core of Lilo & Stitch and is exactly what makes it such a heart-warming, yet emotionally complex, film. To conclude, as always, I’ll leave things with you. Have you seen Lilo & Stitch? What are your thoughts?
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