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COMMENTARY

Stitch, in Time

Lilo and Stitch DVD Cover

To my surprise, I found myself smiling throughout the first half of Lilo 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 [2002], 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 jokiness.

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 Stitch—up to that point as joyously, ingeniously destructive as a two-year-old—became 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 into gloom.

Let me point to an abrupt change in a character's behavior at the end of a film, a change that bothers no one—a 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 believe—from the plot mechanics alone—that Dumbo will respond.

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: "Nah—nah—let'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 them—or, 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 works—a preview was included in the 2001 DVD release of the original—but, mercifully, the sequel was scrapped in 2002.]

[Posted May 2003]

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