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[OPINION] Revisiting All 4 ‘Lilo & Stitch’ Films

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Lilo-Stitch

My brothers and I were in peak childhood when Stitch became a superstar. His franchise was, at once and out of the blue, our everything. Now in my mid-20s, the summertime seemed an appropriate season to revisit some of those memories, so I recently viewed all four Lilo & Stitch films. Here’s a breakdown of each movie, some things you may not know about their origins, and what I was surprised to remember.

Lilo-Stitch

The Films

Lilo & Stitch
Released: June 21, 2002
Studio: Walt Disney Animation Studios (formerly Walt Disney Feature Animation)
Directed by: Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois

This is it. The film that launched a phenomenon. True to some of their stylistic tropes (which would later be seen in DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon in 2010), directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois craft the ultimate misfit story about two outcasts who find friendship in one another and together build a broken ‘ohana.  Lilo & Stitch‘s existence even feels inherently misfit-ish, having been made at Disney’s satellite campus. Though still under the official banner of Walt Disney Animation Studios, the film was entirely created at Walt Disney World in Florida (as were 1998’s Mulan and 2003’s Brother Bear).

Lilo & Stitch was the anomaly of the early 2000s. In a decade marked with underperforming box-office receipts and murky studio relationships, this was the Disney animated film that stood out as an uncontested hit. Walt Disney Animation Studios (at the time known as Walt Disney Feature Animation) wasn’t pumping out classic after classic like they had in the ’90s. While Pixar was producing hits for Disney, the Disney/Pixar connection was strained and the studios’ future together was uncertain at the time. With little to use as a starting point for other arms of Disney’s synergy machine, the company’s various television, theme park, and live production divisions all latched on simultaneously to the one thing that was successful and fully owned by Disney: Lilo & Stitch. The result was several years of Stitch mania.

It’s important to note that while all four Lilo & Stitch films are officially sanctioned “Disney” movies, they’re actually produced by three separate entities within the corporation: Walt Disney Animation Studios, Disneytoon Studios, and Disney Television Animation. Like I said, everyone wanted in on the Lilo & Stitch craze. As we discuss each movie, we’ll delve into how these competing interpretations led to a lack of a consistent vision. We’ll also attempt to answer a question: Is there a Lilo & Stitch universe with a single narrative thread? Or do these films contradict each other?

Stitch-The-Movie

Stitch! The Movie
Released: August 26, 2003
Studio: Disney Television Animation
Directed by: Tony Craig and Roberts Gannaway

This film’s title would’ve made a lot more sense if its accompanying television show had stuck with its original title, Stitch! The Series. Instead, the show was abridged into Lilo & Stitch: The Series, though Stitch! The Movie kept its initial formatting.

No matter what you call it, this 64-minute story served as the pilot episode of the succeeding Disney Channel series. As such, it was produced by Disney Television Animation, a studio that typically sticks to half-hour programming rather than full-length features. It made its debut on DVD one month prior to the television premiere of Lilo & Stitch: The Series.

Directors Tom Craig and Roberts Gannaway were no strangers to adapting famous Disney characters for further exploration, both having credits for Timon & Pumbaa101 Dalmatians: The Series, and House of Mouse. Both continued to contribute to the franchise as executive producers on Lilo & Stitch: The Series.

Stitch-The-Movie

Stitch! The Movie doesn’t attempt to tell a complete, self-contained story, but rather cast the vision for the premise of the series, which it succeeds in doing. It asks the question, “If Stitch was Experiment 626, what happened to the other 625 experiments?” It turns out Jumba actually stored them all, inactive as small pods, but as luck would have it, all 625 pods get released. Once exposed to water (which there is plenty of in the Hawaiian islands), the experiments activate, each with its own special power. Lilo and Stitch take it upon themselves to locate the experiments, or “cousins,” and find each of them a home where they can truly belong. Each episode of the series highlighted a new cousin.

Stitch! The Movie returns nearly the entire cast of Lilo & Stitch while adding in the evil Dr. Hamsterveil and the lazy, sandwich-loving Experiment 625, both of whom would go on to be part of the TV show’s main cast. It takes an investment in watching the whole television series (or at least a handful of episodes) to really enjoy Stitch! The Movie best, feeling rightfully out of context without viewing the very deliverable it existed to set up. It inherently has a television feel to it, though it does feel like a bit more than watching back-to-back episodes thanks to a generous helping of Alan Silvestri’s score from Lilo & Stitch, which adds a sense of grandeur to the action.

Lilo-Stitch-2-Stitch-Has-Glitch

Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch
Released: August 30, 2005
Studio: Disneytoon Studios
Directed by: Michael LaBash and Tony Leondis

When Disney announced Lilo & Stitch 2, there was one glaring question: Wasn’t there already a Lilo & Stitch 2? And thus comes the story of perhaps the most problematic entry into the Lilo & Stitch fold, not because of its content itself but because of how it disrupts the flow of an otherwise steady franchise.

Lilo & Stitch 2 was developed by Disneytoon Studios, a completely separate entity from Disney Television Animation, the latter of which had produced Stitch! The Movie and, at the time of Lilo & Stitch 2‘s release, was still very much producing Lilo & Stitch: The Series. For better or for worse, Lilo & Stitch 2 completely ignores the events of both of those DTA projects.

In fact, Lilo & Stitch 2 feels downright rebellious against DTA’s efforts toward the franchise. The animation is better. The 625 experiments aren’t just not a main presence, they’re altogether absent, not mentioned at all. Even the design of the home and the placement of Lilo and Stitch’s bedroom are different from Stitch! The Movie. So… do they coexist? Are they contradictory? We’ll delve into this more later in the article after discussing the final entry in the film series.

Lilo-Stitch-2-Stitch-Has-Glitch

What’s more, Lilo & Stitch 2 attempts to deepen the emotional rooting of the principal cast rather than expand the story in a completely new realm like Stitch! The Movie set out to do. Taking what we might call a Pixarian approach, Lilo & Stitch 2 only continues the story of Lilo & Stitch through characters that service the new story taking place. This means no outer space, no Cobra Bubbles, and no Gantu. Those may have served their purpose in the first film, but would they really continue to be part of the characters’ lives? (Well, according to Disney Television Animation they would, but to Disneytoon, apparently not.)

Lilo & Stitch 2 boldly carries a mature tone, addressing Lilo’s mother’s death very directly and delving into Lilo’s continued grief. She strives to make her mother proud by continuing her legacy in a local hula contest, which her mother won when she was her age. Distracting her from hula prep, though, is Stitch’s unexplained “glitching,” his eyes glowing green as monster-like behavior overcomes him in repeated chaotic instances. With no central villain and the conflict being largely situational between the main cast, at many points this feels like a hangout movie. Lilo wants to be better. Stitch wants to be better. Their aid to help one another is largely an internal arc, at times leading to a calm pace that definitely leans into the Hawaiian DNA of the franchise rather than its intergalactic side.

Interestingly, while all trailers, posters, cover art, and any mention of this sequel refer to its full title as Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch, the actual title as it appears onscreen at the beginning of the film only says Lilo & Stitch 2. There’s no official word as to why, but my guess would be the subtitle was a post-production decision to differentiate the film to audiences with clever but informative language that says loud and clear this isn’t the same movie you already bought two years prior (even though you might’ve understandably thought that that earlier movie was “Lilo & Stitch 2”).

Lilo-Stitch-2-Stitch-Has-Glitch

Lilo & Stitch 2 was directed by Michael LaBash and Tony Leondis. LaBash would go on to be a story artist with Walt Disney Animation Studios, working on such projects as Prep & Landing, Bolt, and Tangled. Leondis would go on to direct The Emoji Movie at Sony and, if it had released, would have also directed DreamWorks’ B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations.

Lilo here is not voiced by Daveigh Chase, who voiced the heroine in all other Lilo & Stitch projects. Instead, she’s portrayed by Dakota Fanning, star of Charlotte’s Web just one year later and who most recently, 14 years later, appeared alongside Brad Pitt in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

In one last observation, Lilo & Stitch 2 includes the “hero dies and then is revived miraculously” trope that was common for Disneytoon at the time, here used for Stitch and used less than a year later for Bambi in Bambi 2. As Stitch awakens on his literal deathbed moments after seemingly losing his life, Pleakley asks, “How is it possible?,” to which Jumba replies, “It’s not.” Did we really think he’d be gone? (Imagine how truly rebellious it would be if he was, though.)

Leroy-Stitch

Leroy & Stitch
Released: June 23, 2006
Studio: Disney Television Animation
Directed by: Tony Craig and Roberts Gannaway

Craig and Gannaway return to the directors’ chairs to cap off the franchise with a surprisingly poignant finale, even if its title indicates something silly or flimsy. To be sure, Leroy & Stitch still very much carries the action-packed, “Boom! Zap! Pow!,” Saturday-morning-cartoon feel of Lilo & Stitch: The Series rather than the emotional resonance of Lilo & Stitch 2. But still, even disregarding its context as the send-off of a beloved franchise created by the “big leagues” of Walt Disney Animation Studios and simply viewing it as the series finale to an incredible well-done Disney Channel show, Leroy & Stitch surprisingly soars. The fact that it carries that extra baggage within the larger Disney legacy is fitting all the more.

The mission Lilo and Stitch set out to do is now complete. They found a home, a place to belong, for all of Stitch’s cousins, all of Jumba’s experiments. And so the time has come for Stitch, Jumba, and Pleakley to return to the place they belong, outer space. What follows is a touching exploration of how one discovers their place in the world and how the definition of the word “family” can adapt to mean something we intentionally build around us. All the while, of course, Dr. Hamsteveil has escaped from prison and has a new experiment of his own, Leroy –– an alien whose strength rivals that of Stitch, and who could finally be the key to Hamsterveil’s revenge on Stitch and company. The story feels as much like a finale as any finishing television episode should, and how cool of Disney to permit an entire feature’s length to this conclusion rather than limit it to a regular episode as it so easily could have. It even smartly roots its climax in the franchise’s Elvis heritage. This thing just gets it right.

Leroy-Stitch

Unlike Stitch! The Movie, which debuted on DVD, Leroy & Stitch actually premiered on Disney Channel several days prior to its DVD release. Its DVD cover art hails it as a “Disney Channel Premiere Presentation” (language that’s only used here in this isolated instance), but it’s curious to note that Leroy & Stitch is not considered a Disney Channel Original Movie (language used consistently to refer to Disney Channel’s canon of films originating on the network, also called DCOMs). In 2011, Phineas and Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension debuted as a made-for-TV-movie created by Disney Television Animation based on an existing Disney Channel series. Despite the fact that it shared all of those descriptors with Leroy & Stitch, ultimately Across the 2nd Dimension DID earn the DCOM distinction, even though Leroy & Stitch did not. Who’s to say the rhyme of reason behind it, but for what it’s worth, Leroy & Stitch is not officially a DCOM.

Lilo-Stitch-2-Stitch-Has-Glitch

The Timeline

It’s time to unleash your inner Enneagram Type 4 and get real analytical for a sec. Remember when I said we’d talk about how if all of the Lilo & Stitch films exist together or contradict each other, how if there’s a consistent Lilo & Stitch cinematic universe? Let’s do this.

When it comes down to it, it’s Lilo & Stitch 2 (2005) that really throws things off here. If removed from the equation, all the remaining content –– Lilo & Stitch (2002), Stitch! The Movie! (2003), Lilo & Stitch: The Series (2003-2006), and Leroy & Stitch (2006) –– flow together both chronologically and sequentially without error. An issue arises, as we touched on earlier, with Lilo & Stitch 2 ignoring everything that came after 2002, begging the question of when it takes place.

The back cover of Lilo & Stitch 2‘s DVD claims it takes place before Stitch! The Movie. Its story description begins, “Before the other 625 experiments land in Hawaii, Stitch is living the good life.” It then goes on to summarize the rest of the film’s plot.

Looking closely, though, this doesn’t add up. I propose the opposite. While Disney copywriting may tell us otherwise, I believe that Lilo & Stitch 2 takes place after the events of everything else in the entire franchise. Here’s the proof:

In the opening moments of Stitch! The Movie, Lilo preps Stitch for what she says is his first big Hawaiian celebration. There are other similar asides in Stitch! The Movie that allude to Stitch being very new to Earth and not accustomed to Lilo’s culture. He’s very much still adjusting to his new life in an ‘ohana. In Lilo & Stitch 2, there is no such struggle for Stitch. If Lilo & Stitch 2 really takes place before Stitch! The Movie, then it doesn’t make sense for Stitch to be totally unfamiliar with earthly customs in Stitch! The Movie because he’s had plenty of practice with them.

Stitch-The-Movie

Another hint is Nani and David’s relationship status. At the end of the first Lilo & Stitch, Nani and David are left in limbo, but undeniably interested in one another. In Stitch! The Movie, David begins to ask Nani out on a date, implying that they haven’t officially dated yet. In Lilo & Stitch 2, David says that he and Nani have been dating for three weeks. This would imply that Lilo & Stitch 2 takes place after Stitch! The Movie (and that during the entire run of Lilo & Stitch: The Series, Nani had poor David still in the friendzone). However, it’s also possible that Nani and David had an on-again, off-again relationship, in which case David asking out Nani in Stitch! The Movie could be read as an attempt to restore the relationship rather than begin it. The first theory about the couple seems more plausible, though.

Furthermore, in Lilo & Stitch 2, there’s a line about Pleakley prioritizing a day at home to do “research about Earth.” When I first observed this line, it seemed to unravel my theory that Lilo & Stitch 2 takes place after everything else. After all, why would Pleakley need to research Earth if he’s lived here for several years at that point? However, we could also conclude that Pleakley’s quest to know everything about Earth is a never-ending pursuit, his life’s passion that will always be in motion. Pleakley is an over-the-top, hyperbolic personality. He goes all in on everything, and nothing is not a big deal. It still makes sense, then, that even after being a resident for quite a long time, he’d still, perhaps comically, treat his Earth research as his highest priority. This keeps the theory in tact: If we read things this way, Lilo & Stitch 2 takes place after the events of Stitch! The MovieLilo & Stitch: The Series, and Leroy & Stitch.

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Does it matter when it all takes place? It it necessary that everything line up? In short, no. Especially when the official communication from Disney itself doesn’t add up, I don’t think it’s essential to determine a cinematic universe, if we were to call it that, of Lilo & Stitch media. Still, if we’re paying close attention, we can posit our own order of events, even if they’re different from what Disney tells us and likely different from what the filmmakers strategized (if they thought through any of it in the first place).

Certainly it’s difficult to maintain consistency across all media within a huge conglomerate like Disney, when a story takes on new life in various mediums beyond its initial theatrical film. Heck, for years Walt Disney World displayed a major plot hole in calling Stitch by his Earth name in Stitch’s Great Escape!, which in the timeline was supposed to take place while Experiment 626 was still in outer space, before Lilo adopted him. If the company is obviously “non-canon” in some mediums, then, is it necessary that it remain with a thoroughfare thread for projects that exist with the same medium (in our case, film)? I suppose not. Only on a fan site would someone care as much to write or read such a conversation, and yet that’s what makes a space like a fan site so fun sometimes.

The Legacy

In 2002, Lilo & Stitch was the biggest thing Disney had going for itself. I mean, come on. It shared a summer with The Country Bears. This franchise would be the footing Disney needed to maintain its reputation as a company that could flourish a franchise during a period when it frankly couldn’t turn to any other intellectual property to fill that void. The animation renaissance (and Renaissance) of the ’90s was past, not yet on firm footing was Disney and Pixar’s relationship, and not yet arrived was the onslaught of live-action Disney Channel juggernauts like High School Musical and Hannah Montana that would carry the corporation into the rest of the decade. Lilo & Stitch, this somewhat simple misfit story, became the centerpiece of a multibillion-dollar operation.

Stitch himself became the poster child for Disney characters, regularly appearing alongside Mickey and friends in merchandise and promotional campaigns as if he’d starred alongside them in classic cartoons their entire careers, as much as Donald or Pluto. Stitch became the 2000s equivalent of Roger Rabbit, the as-of-yet-not-materialized 2010s version of Olaf, the figurehead who was suddenly everywhere and who people either loved or hated. This notion especially pertained to his presence in Disney theme parks, the most significant of which was the aforementioned Stitch’s Great Escape!, a sensory overload during which guests remained in stationary seats with a harness over their shoulders as the room turned dark and Stitch “roamed” about, seemingly jumping on shoulders, burping in faces, and altogether causing mayhem. The attraction opened in 2004 with an actual defacing of Cinderella Castle, Stitch having teepeed the iconic structure overnight. (Yes, this was a real thing that happened). Stitch’s Great Escape! haunted vacation memories of families through 2016, when it reverted to seasonal status before closing permanently.

Leroy-Stitch

In Asia, the Lilo & Stitch franchise continued to return evergreen much longer than in America. It continued to be adapted with two additional television series: Stitch! (2008-2015) in Japan and Stitch & Ai (2017) in China, both created by non-Disney animation houses but sanctioned as Disney productions. These programs pair Stitch with new children he teams up with in each of their respective locales, not in Hawaii. Whether or not the shows see it possible to coexist in a continuing canon of sorts is beyond my level of understanding, though it’s noteworthy that Stitch & Ai was co-directed by Tony Craig, a veteran of the franchise.

Surely the longstanding legacy will beam radiant through the original 2002 classic that started it all, though if future generations search hard enough, they’ll find plenty of fun (and an equally maddening dissertation in timeline continuity) through the franchise’s spinoff productions. Then again, we might see a resurgence in popularity sooner than we think, if the promised live-action remake is still in development. In any case, Lilo & Stitch is the definitive Disney pinnacle for a generation of fans, and as 2000s nostalgia begins to arise in the coming years, I hope the franchise gets its deserved credit for being a lone-standing, essential bridge between important eras of Disney history.

What’s your favorite Lilo & Stitch momen

 

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