Stitch, in Time
To my surprise, I found myself smiling throughout the first half
and Stitch. Not because what was on the screen was particularly
funny (although sometimes it was), but because the filmmakers seemed
perfectly content to be making a cartoon. I first saw the
film, in a theater, within days of Ward Kimball's death last summer ,
and I thought of him when I saw it, because he was the last Disney
animator of consequence who was an unashamed cartoonist.
The cartoonish characters in a Disney film like Beauty
and the Beast usually signal clearly that they're several
rungs lower in status than the more realistically drawn leads (think
of Gaston's silly servant, Le Fou). It was that shamefaced toe-scuffing
that I found mercifully absent in Lilo. All the characters,
whether Hawaiian girls or creatures from outer space, seem to be
comfortable in their cartoon skins.
Without being at all self-conscious about it, the film affirms
the validity of cartoon, and caricature, as a way of looking at
the world. It thus differs radically from The
Emperor's New Groove, the wholly cartoonish animated Disney
feature released a couple of years ago. That film, made by people
who thought they were slumming, is disfigured by a nonstop sneering
Lilo had two directors, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois,
in the usual peculiar Disney pattern, but it seems to have been
Sanders' sensibility that was dominant. I would like to think that
he will become a Kimball-like comic force in the years ahead, but
that may be a foolish hope.
My smile faded in the middle of the film, when the little alien
Stitchup to that point as joyously, ingeniously destructive
as a two-year-oldbecame aware of himself as a pitiable "ugly
duckling." It was then that I began to detect the stench of
character development. I could easily imagine some arrogant "suit"
demanding such a thing; or maybe the directors were just trying
to stay ahead of the "suits"; or maybe they had already
worked at Disney too long and so had begun to absorb the present-day
studio's bad ideas.
The aim, I suppose, was to give Stitch some complexity, so that
his conversion to good guy would not seem too abrupt. Such artificial
devices almost always have the opposite effect. A character's abrupt
turnabout need not be in the least unconvincing, if that character's
reality has been established before the change occurs. That is certainly
true of Stitch in the first half of the film.
People (or, in Stitch's case, the results of alien experiments)
are highly complex beings who are capable of a lot of things, good
and bad. If a film makes that complexity real, an abrupt change
can be far more convincing than a change that occurs as the result
of planting some prop like the children's book that plunges Stitch
Let me point to an abrupt change in a character's behavior at the
end of a film, a change that bothers no onea change that seems
perfectly natural, in fact, because we have gotten to know the character.
At the climax of Dumbo,
when Dumbo is falling from that great height with the magic feather
in his trunk, and Timothy is begging him to fly, we have no reason
to believefrom the plot mechanics alonethat Dumbo will
If Dumbo were being made by today's Disney studio, we know
how that lacuna would be filled. Dumbo (his name changed to Zumbo
to avoid offending the stupid) would talk, of course, and he and
Timothy would have a conversation in which Zumbo says something
like "G-g-gosh, Timothy, isn't it wonderful that the magic
feather will let me fly? D-d-do you suppose that I might be able
to fly some day without the feather?" Timothy replies,
a little nervously: "Nahnahlet's stick with the
feather, pal. No use gettin' fancy!"
And then, as Zumbo is plummeting to earth, his pink and cuddly
little elephant girlfriend cries out, from where she has been imprisoned
by the evil ringmaster, "Zumbo! I know you can do it! Fly,
Zumbo, fly!" But Zumbo keeps plunging toward that tub, not
knowing that when he hits it, that will be the signal for the evil
ringmaster to grow to enormous size and unleash a horde of evil
clowns on the world. And then ...well, enough of such morbid fantasizing.
It is our great good fortune that Dumbo was not made in
2002 but in 1941, produced by Walt Disney and animated by Bill Tytla.
By the time Dumbo is plummeting from that tower, he has wept in
his mother's embrace and gotten drunk and otherwise given every
sign that he is a real creature and thus capable of the most surprising
things. That is why there is only delight when he flies.
It's a little frustrating to be invoking Dumbo and Walt
Disney and Bill Tytla here, because I so often invoke them, and
a few other films and a few other people, when I write about animation.
I think that's because so few really good animated films have been
made, and so few really good people have worked on themor,
much more likely, so few really good people have had the chance
to show what they can do. But the medium itself is always ready
to respond, when given a chance. The first half of Lilo and Stitch
tells us that.
[The Disney studio actually had a direct-to-video sequel to Dumbo
in the worksa preview was included in the 2001 DVD release
of the originalbut, mercifully, the sequel was scrapped in
[Posted May 2003]