Phase9 Entertainment

LILO AND STITCH - Movie Feature 1

"LILO AND STITCH? What's a 'Lilo'? And what the heck's a 'Stitch'?" You may well ask. Roy E Disney did. These were his first words, after hearing the pitch for the Walt Disney studio's latest animated movie from president of Feature Animation, Thomas Schumacher. After all, a story about a genetically-mutated blue alien, a Hawaiian girl who loves Elvis Presley, a Ray Ban-wearing social worker with the voice of Ving Rhames...that might seem a bit strange to anyone. As it happens, LILO AND STITCH, written and directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, has already been firmly taken to the hearts of American audience members, with the movie holding Steven Spielberg's MINORITY REPORT off the top spot at the US box-office on its week of release. The most successful animated film of the summer, it has already grossed over $142 million in the States, leaving few people in doubt of the answers to Roy's questions.

As if to show just how confident studio heads were that fans would embrace Stitch as much-loved member of the Disney family, trailers for the film spliced frames of the mischievous alien popping up into actual sequences from four previous classics from the company - BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, THE LION KING, THE LITTLE MERMAID and ALADDIN. "This idea came from Chris and Dean," says Schumacher. "We were looking for a way to introduce the Stitch character. He basically is unique. The idea that he has invaded Earth means that he could invade the other movies. Not wanting to blow smoke up our own skirts, but I think the marketing campaign is fantastic. The first time I saw it in story-sketch, I howled!"

The concept of Stitch first entered into Chris Sanders' head, way back in 1985. Then he was just a drawing in a sketchbook for a children's story Sanders was writing about a woodland creature, who had been ostracized by his community. Over time - after selling the story to Schumacher in a karaoke bar in Disney World, of all places - Sanders' creation became an alien, and the story mutated to a relationship between the creature and a little boy from a rural backwater. While Stitch was always set to be an aggressive gremlin, he was originally the leader of a gang of space-hooligans brought to our planet - and not a genetic experiment gone wrong and cast off towards Earth, as he would mutate into. With the visuals came sound, with Sanders developing Stitch's own 'baby nonsense' language and ultimately voicing him in the film. "There are certain sounds that work very well and some that don't," he reflects. "Rounded sounds like Rs and Os are very difficult for that voice to do. Harder sounds like Cs and Ks were what we tended towards."

As for Lilo (voiced by Daveigh Chase), he became she, and the character was eventually born after Sanders took a trip to Hawaii, causing the film to be relocated. "It had the same requirements of having a small-town atmosphere," says co- writer/director DeBlois, who had previously worked with Sanders on MULAN. "It was intentionally devised to be intimate in its scope. At that point, we also realised it was steeped in its own rich history. Early on we wanted Lilo to be really up on Hawaiian legends. What is noteworthy is the accuracy to the towns and the vibe of the people, and how they speak and interact with each other. This idea of 'Ohana' was very prevalent among the Hawaiian people."

Indeed, the notions of culture and family are something very much at the heart of this film, very much in the tradition of the Disney ethos. As Lilo repeatedly notes: "Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind. Or forgotten." Living only with her older sister Nani (voiced by Tia Carrera), Lilo has to face problems dealt with by young children the world over: growing up without parental guidance. With the imposing social worker Cobra Bubbles (Rhames) breathing down their necks, Lilo and Nani clash over her upbringing - with our heroine ultimately finding friendship with another outsider, the initially-destructive Stitch, who crash-lands in downtown Hawaii.

"I think there's a frankness about the film that's interesting and a little unexpected from us," says Roy Disney. "We learned a lot of things from this movie - you can now tell stories in a way you couldn't ten years ago." His colleague, Thomas Schumacher, concurs. "This film breaks boundaries in a couple of ways. It's a contemporary story, so when we deal with contemporary issues in a modern setting you particularly notice it. Also, with the Stitch character, we allow him to be so naughty at the beginning, so that you get the resonance of watching him change at the end. We've had people behave badly in our movies before, but its rare to have someone to behave badly who gets to change."

If that was groundbreaking for Disney, then licensing Elvis tracks was near revolutionary for an animated movie. Initially, to Chris and Dean, it was merely a pipe dream, because of the projected expense of securing the rights to the King's music. "The idea of Elvis started off as a character trait written into Lilo's description," says Sanders. "It was one of those traits to make her different from the other girls. She makes her own dolls and listens to Elvis. It seemed like a really neat thing: a girl who hadn't embraced CD technology, hauled around a little record player and listening to vinyl records all the time. We liked that."

During the early days of the film, various Elvis tracks would be used to support some of the animated scenes being built. The more the film progressed, the more the music became inextricably married to the story. "At that point, we began having conversations with the Elvis estate," says DeBlois. "They were all very enthusiastic about us using the music and bringing it to a new generation." Pop singer Gareth Gates is recording a cover version of Elvis' Suspicious Minds for the end-credit sequence of the UK-release, this exposure to younger audiences seems assured.

It all makes for a very unique Disney movie. Made in Orlando, Florida - rather than at the Burbank studios - costs were kept lower than usual with a reduced crew of around 350, as part of the mantra of keeping the movie intimate and small. "It comes from a very idiosyncratic one-artist vision, as opposed to an enormous feature composed by a committee, which was a way we worked for a long time," concludes Roy Disney. "As the Irish say, 'It's its own self entirely.'"