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‘We’re going to hide it’: How Lilo & Stitch succeeded by staying off Disney’s radar

‘[Michael Eisner] couldn’t find an easy way to encapsulate the film in his head. But he really liked it.’

a grid featuring scenes from Lilo and Stitch Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: Disney

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Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

Your favorite childhood movie might’ve been a total box-office dud. The animated movies that defined the late ‘90s and early 2000s are beloved by a generation that grew up watching them on VHS, but many of these nostalgic favorites were critical failures, box-office disappointments, or both. What went wrong along the way? And why did they gain such love after the fact? The Beloved Animated Failures series is out to dust off those old VHS tapes (or, more accurately, find the movies on streaming) and examine some of these films.

In the late 1990s, Walt Disney Animation saw a number of increasingly expensive projects stumble with increasingly diminished returns. So after the six-year-long production of Mulan, animator Chris Sanders pushed for the studio to diversify the scope of the movies.

“Each film we produced was more complex and more expensive than the film before it,” Sanders tells Polygon. “One of the things I began to advocate was a return to a smaller film. That’s what Lilo & Stitch was. We would pay for our story freedom by controlling our budget.”

Lilo & Stitch, arguably one of the kookiest and off-kilter movies to come out of the tense time period, proved to be the unexpected success Sanders was hoping for — and not just in its theatrical release. The movie spawned three direct-to-video sequels, a successful television series, and multiple theme park attractions. Now Disney’s eying a live-action remake with In the Heights director Jon Chu. Stitch, against all odds, is still everywhere.

In the final installment of Beloved Animated Failures, we take a look at how a movie about a family threatening to splinter apart because of social services, and an alien fugitive crash-landing in Hawaii, managed to become one of Disney’s few enduring modern hits. Similar animated tentpoles like Treasure Planet, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and The Emperor’s New Groove were charming, yet dead on arrival; Lilo & Stitch went on to be as popular as the films born from the Disney Renaissance. The success had a little to do with the cute aliens, a little more to do with the clever marketing campaign, and a lot to do with the freedom the filmmakers had to make things the way they wanted to while operating within the Disney machine.

lilo and stitch wearing sunglasses and regarding a small dog Image: Disney

What it’s about

Lilo & Stitch opens with a dangerous and violent alien fugitive (Chris Sanders) crash-landing on Hawaii. A little girl named Lilo (Daveigh Chase), who feels like an outsider to her peers, adopts the alien and names him Stitch.

In an effort to evade his captors, Stitch decides to blend in and pretend to be Lilo’s pet. Meanwhile, Lilo and her older sister Nani (Tia Carrere) face the possibility of being separated by social services. In the end, both of the misfits find a place with each other and rebuild the bonds of a broken family.

A little backstory…

Sanders began developing Lilo & Stitch as a solo project, based on an original story from a children’s book that he had written years before. When Thomas Schumacher, then head of Walt Disney Feature Animation, asked him if there was a project that he wanted to work on, Sanders dusted off the old concept, which featured a strange creature surviving in the middle of the woods amongst animals. He had abandoned the story because the scope was simply too large to fit into a children’s book, but brought it to Schumacher over dinner at Walt Disney World’s Swan hotel. Schumacher loved the idea, but gave Sanders one specific note that ultimately shaped the whole story.

“Animals are, in a sense, a bit alien to us anyway,” Schumacher told Sanders over sushi. “To get the best and biggest contrast, I would suggest setting this in the human world.”

lilo hula dancing with some other girls Image: Disney

Sanders eventually recruited co-director and co-writer in Dean DeBlois to aid in translating the story to screen. DeBlois and Sanders first met and hit it off on Mulan, where the two worked in the story department — DeBlois was co-head of story, while Sanders was screenplay and story supervisor — and hit it off. After Mulan wrapped, Sanders started developing his own movie, while DeBlois jumped to Atlantis: The Last Empire. But he felt unsatisfied.

“I just realized my calling was to be working with Chris on something like [Lilo & Stitch],” DeBlois says. “And so I let it be known.”

Schumacher put DeBlois on as co-director of the project, with the intent that a professional screenwriter would come in to give it a Disney polish. That never ended up happening, and both DeBlois and Sanders ultimately shared screenwriting credits on Lilo & Stitch. Considering the origins of the story, it probably worked out for the best. There was a lot to consider.

While Sanders acquiesced to Schumacher’s suggestion that his film needed a human element, he still wanted to set the action somewhere isolated. He considered Kansas, but after glancing at a map and seeing how remote the Hawaiian islands were, he landed on the the American archipelago. There was one red flag: Both Sanders and DeBlois had learned from working on Mulan that, when embedding a story in a specific, real location, there were certain cultural elements that did not belong to them as outsiders, and which could not freely be used. So after settling on the location, they engaged with as many Hawaiians as they could. They brought on musician Mark Keali’i Ho’omalu to consult on the hula dancing and choir arrangements, and sought feedback from actresses auditioning for Nani about how the character would realistically behave.

A research trip to Hawaii ended up solidifying the message of the movie and the importance of ohana, or family. And by avoiding the tourist traps of Hawaii, the Disney team got a sense of the idiosyncrasies of daily life on the island. Struck by the closeness of the community, they did their best to infuse that particular cultural specificity into the movie.

“The human side of the story was there to try to counterbalance some of the wacky sci-fi elements because it was pretty tongue-in-cheek and silly, and yet we wanted it to feel emotionally true and grounded,” DeBlois says.

nani and lilo sitting on a bed, bonding Image: Disney

Though the movie’s fictional Hawaiian setting shaped the themes of Sanders and DeBlois’ screenplay, the animation process would play as big a part into molding the movie people know. Unlike many big-budget Disney movies of years past, Lilo and Stitch was produced outside the California-based Walt Disney Animation Studios at a now-infamous Florida studio located within Walt Disney World.

Part of the park’s Hollywood Studios (then called MGM Studios), Walt Disney Animation Florida was originally designed to be a theme park attraction, with park employees pretending to be animators. Producer Max Howard, however, had other ideas and found real animators for the studio. At first, it started off with short films, then segments of films, until the unit embarked on making feature films of its own. Sanders first learned about the Florida studio while working on The Lion King, and the animators in California had a “relatively dim view of it.” He was hesitant about journeying there to complete portions of the film, including the “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” sequence, but all that changed once he started working in Orlando.

“The Florida studio, I think, was like the California studio was way back when Walt Disney first started it. It was a brand new studio with young talent, anxious to prove themselves. So I love the Florida studio. And when we were asked whether or not we were interested in making Lilo & Stitch in Florida, I jumped at the chance,” Sanders says.

DeBlois, meanwhile, was less enthused about the idea of working at a studio trapped inside a theme park.

“You could hear the screams from the Tower of Terror and the Rock N’ Roller coaster taking off,” DeBlois says.

Lilo & Stitch was not the first movie made at Hollywood Studios — that honor goes to Mulan — but the remoteness of the Florida studio proved to be a boon for the small animation team of a more idiosyncratic project. Sanders believes the intimacy of the studio allowed animators to bond and bring a stronger family feel to the movie. But most concretely and directly, the animators drew inspiration from the gaggles of tourists who passed through the park every day, turning them into Lilo’s quirky photography subjects. As clean-up supervisor Phil Boyd told the Orlando Sentinel in 2002, “Every tourist in this movie has passed in front of those windows at some time.”

In a rare move for feature animation, Lilo & Stitch was completely rendered in Sanders’ personal illustration style. Schumacher had insisted on at the shake-up of the Disney house style at the beginning of production, after looking at Sanders’ pitchbook. Thanks to visual supervisor Sue Nichols, who completely deconstructed and analyzed Sanders’ art, the animators replicated it with ease.

“She took a few weeks and produced this book called Surfing the Sanders Style. And no one was more curious or anxious to read this book than I was,” says Sanders. “I was absolutely fascinated.”

Unlike other animated films at the time, Lilo & Stitch incorporated little CGI, instead employing watercolor techniques for backgrounds that hadn’t been used at the studio since 1941’s Dumbo. Part of it stemmed from the fact that Sanders knew his character designs would not work in CGI, especially when it came to the human characters. The choice to harken back to the watercolors — done to complement Sanders’ style and emulate a children’s storybook feel — raised some eyebrows, considering the technique had basically been dead for 60 years. Sanders recalls the California animators snidely remarking before production that if the less-experienced Florida animators got stuck, the senior animators wouldn’t be able to help them.

“Once the artists at the Florida studio got in their groove with this watercolor style, they were producing paintings more quickly than you could have gouache painting because they would do a wash on painting one, set it aside, start doing a wash on number two, set that aside, then hit a wash on number three. They were working on three or four paintings at once,” explains Sanders. “So cut to me back at the California studio, the same guy approaches me and says, Hey, so how are you guys doing those backgrounds? I think they were humbled by what the Florida studio pulled off.”

Luckily for Sandres and DeBlois, no one in Walt Disney Animation’s Burbank offices was really paying attention to what was going on with the film. If they had been, the movie might very well not have happened.

Why it shouldn’t have worked

nani beating off stitch with a stick Image: Disney

Sanders says, after the first reel of Lilo & Stitch was completed, Schumacher had told him directly that, while it was shaping up to be a great film, it would be absolutely decimated by studio notes.

“So we’re going to hide it,” Schumacher said to Sanders. “And we’re not gonna let the studio see it. We’re going to hide it until the film is strong enough to withstand those kind of notes.”

So Schumacher basically put Lilo & Stitch in a “little secret garage,” and gave the generic updates when asked by CEO Michael Eisner and other Disney executives how it was going. And that was that. Updates were limited, and the creative process rolled along across the country.

Embracing old-school 2D techniques that might provoke eyerolls from the California crew was a demand of the production itself; the Lilo & Stitch team didn’t have the budget for CGI. They didn’t have the budget for a lot of little things, and had to be smart about where the money went. Nani, for instance, originally had two different shirt designs, but it was going to be too expensive to render the second one.

“We couldn’t afford things like shadows, or details. A simple detail, like a back pocket on a pair of jean shorts, or a logo on a T-shirt had to be removed just because it took so much longer to draw them. And we couldn’t afford shadows,” DeBlois says. “So you’ll notice so much of Lilo & Stitch takes place in the shade of the trees and the bushes and whatnot. We saved for those special moments where we needed them.”

lilo and nani looking out the window, bathed in an eerie green glow Image: Disney

There did come a moment late in production, however, that strained the budget and schedule: a scene involving the extraterrestrial hijacking of a 747. Originally, Stitch was supposed to commandeer a plane through a city. The scene was intended to be super cartoonish, with the jet bouncing off buildings. Then the September 11 attacks happened. Sanders recalls moving through the day in a blur, dazed and shocked by the attacks. Then later on, the comparison dawned on him.

“It was done. It was finished,” says Sanders. “And my heart just sank.”

Sanders ended up calling Schumacher, and then eventually Roy Disney himself, to discuss what to do about the scene. They decided that they had to change it — with just a few weeks left in production. It was DeBlois who came up with the solution: instead of stealing a plane, Stitch would steal the ship that Jumba and Pleakley arrived on the island with. Thankfully, the airplane and the spaceships were some of the few digital elements of the film and the 747 was quickly remodeled into a different shape.

“It’s one of the reasons that the spaceship has very 747 looking engines on it,” Sanders says.

The team was so aware of the tight budget, though, that even after reanimating the chase sequence they had enough money for about two more minutes of footage. That’s where the little epilogue montage at the end of the movie comes in, which addresses how Lilo and Nani have been adjusting to life with their new alien family. (Nani’s second t-shirt design appears in the laundry during that montage, a cute little bonus Easter Egg).

“I can’t imagine the film without that now,” says Sanders. “Like you get to see what their life was, because Stitch arrived, destroyed their lives, tore things apart, but then reassembled it more strongly.”

Michael Eisner eventually saw the finished version of Lilo & Stitch, of course, and he approved. After Eisner finally saw the film, he wanted to sit down with Sanders.

“We went over there, and Michael [Eisner] was like, ‘I like this film. It’s really different. I can’t explain it … I just like it. It’s weird. But weird in a good way,’” Sanders recalls. “So there it was: he couldn’t find an easy way to encapsulate the film in his head. But he really liked it.”

But selling it to an audience was a big unknown. Lilo & Stitch is an oddity reflective of its two main characters. Even though it’s an alien adventure, it takes place on a small island in Hawaii, and the wacky space hijinks are juxtaposed with a poignant family plot about two sisters who might get separated by social services. The film deals with grief, of being an outsider, of finding family in the most unexpected places and mending existing relationships. And Elvis is a big plot point and one of the aliens believes that the Earth is under protection because mosquitos are an endangered species, because a CIA agent, who is now a social worker, lied to him. Arriving shortly before Disney’s big blockbuster of 2002, Treasure Island, one could imagine Lilo & Stitch landing on a dusty VHS shelf as an animated cult film. But it didn’t.

Why it did work

lilo and stitch balancing on nani’s shoulders, while nani is balanced on david’s shoulders while surfing Image: Disney

Unlike some of the other Disney entries in our Beloved Animated Failures series — which were big, expensive passion projects — Lilo & Stitch was specifically designed to be a small film, which means it did not have the burden of earning back a massive budget. Still, even if it didn’t make Lion King money, it did make $273.1 million at the global box office, more than three times its budget.

Lilo & Stitch is very weird, but it is very weird in a very cute and therefore approachable way. To this day, Stitch is one of the bestselling Disney characters and his face is plastered across merchandise and theme park attractions. No one is more surprised than Sanders and DeBlois to see Stitch among classic Disney characters like Mickey, Minnie, and Winnie the Pooh; while doing the press tour for How to Train Your Dragon, DeBlois was incredibly astonished to find out that Disney’s Stitch Day, June 26, is a big deal in Japan.

“We would see little figurines of him in every train station we would go to — married with whatever that town is famous for,” DeBlois says. “If it was famous for green tea ice cream, it would be Stitch licking a green tea ice cream cone or if it was famous for Mount Fuji, it was Stitch on Mount Fuji.”

stitch with a toothy grin waving Image: Disney

Funnily enough, it was Stitch’s quirkiness that ended up inspiring the movie’s particularly brilliant marketing campaign.

“When we saw the first trailer, it made our hearts sink a little bit, because it was exactly what we had feared. It felt very juvenile, and simplistic. It was all about how you always remember your very first friend,” says DeBlois. “It felt so saccharine and sweet to us that we pushed back on it.”

Sanders and DeBlois schemed something of their own. They’d talked about how funny Stitch looked compared to the lineup of heroic Disney characters, and basically decided to riff on that: what if Stitch was crash landing into classic Disney moments? What if when Belle dances with the Beast, Stitch hijacks the chandelier? What if when Aladdin and Jasmine fly on the magic carpet, Stitch cruises in on a spaceship and steals Jasmine away?

The marketing executives loved it, and as it turns out, that tactic appealed to Disney’s core audience and more mainstream audience sensibilities. (Even if some of the returning voice actors weren’t too thrilled, recounts Sanders).

Previous entries in this column discussed the shift in Western animation from heroic stories to a more cynical and humor-focused direction, no thanks in part to how Shrek completely dismantled expectations for animated movies. While Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire still promised big, grand, and earnest adventures, Lilo & Stitch’s marketing deliberately demolished that from the get-go.

But the beauty is that Lilo & Stitch isn’t a crude or mean movie. It actually has an incredibly heartfelt message of found family and belonging, one that never feels overly cloying and is balanced with science-fiction action, realistic relationships, and natural character growth. Stitch was designed to be a villainous character, who goes on a journey of redemption. The idea was sparked while working on Mulan, where Sanders thought it was quite funny that they had such lengthy discussions on how to kill the bad guy.

“I even said out loud, ‘Isn’t it funny? How much time we spend talking about how we’re going to kill a character in these films.’ It’s kind of ubiquitous,” he says. “And I felt like, well, what if we didn’t kill one? What if we redeemed one instead? And so that is one of the reasons that Stitch is utterly unique. One of the reasons for his staying power is that he is the villain of the film.”

nani, lilo, and stitch standing on the beach Image: Disney

Lilo & Stitch is unique in mainstream Western animation, both in art style and story. The cuteness — and marketability of Stitch — helped the movie gain traction for new audiences, but how it handles heavier themes and culture became part of its legacy. Older children and teenagers could relate to Nani, whereas younger kids identified with Lilo and Stitch, and adults could appreciate a well-crafted story with enough laughs. Maybe they came for the cute aliens, but they stayed because the story resonated.

Lilo & Stitch is not a Beloved Animated Failure, but a Beloved Animated Success that defied all odds in a weird time for animation. As for the upcoming live-action remake in the works, both Sanders and DeBlois understand why it’s happening, considering how popular the movie still is, but they’re a little skeptical on how it’s going to be done.

Lion King was an interesting thing, because they didn’t try to reinvent it. Almost a shot-for-shot remake. We worked so hard in that film. The film was perfect. I think it was exactly the film that it was supposed to be,” says Sanders. “So in some ways, you are happy that they did this shot-for-shot remake because it wasn’t the wrong film. On the other hand, when it’s a shot for shot remake ... It’s weird. It’s weird when you see it celebrated when it was all worked out ahead of time.”

Lilo & Stitch is available to stream on Disney Plus.


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