Dissecting Disney: Lilo and Stitch

This series analyses Disney movies and shows from a feminist or other critical perspectives. It is not condemning Disney; it is analysing a beloved piece of childhood from an adult point of view

Once upon a time, Disney released a movie about two sisters. The younger one was free-spirited and unashamed to be herself, while the older one did what she had to do to keep her baby sister safe. There was a cute sidekick and lots of strange events that couldn’t happen in real life, but the charm of the story came from the love between the sisters, the sacrifices they made for each other, and the message of the importance of sisterly bonds.

The movie I’m talking about is, of course, Lilo & Stitch.

Lilo & Stitch was released in UK cinemas in 2002. It was a commercial success, being one of only two Disney films in the 2000’s to make its budget back during its initial release, the other being The Princess and the Frog.

The plot is a simple one. Experiment 626 is a genetic experiment which escapes incarceration in space when he steals a ship. It crashes on earth, in a small town in Hawaii. He is mistaken for a dog and adopted by Lilo. She names him Stitch. The story follows him adjusting to earth, avoiding capture, and learning how to be good and what to do when there is nothing less to destroy.

It’s a cute story. The animation is pretty and the music is delightful. I like the characters, and I think it’s an under-rated movie. The colour comes from the aliens, from Stitch, his creator, and the zoologist who pursues them. The heart comes from the sisters.

Lilo is a six year old girl living in Hawaii. Her name means lost, or generous one. Her interests are photography, hula dancing and Elvis. She’s quirky, but it’s believable because she is a child. She’s not the manic pixie character, she’s just a kid with the strange interests kids develop. She likes to play with her home-made voodoo dolls. She claims the cruel children at school are her friends. She’s off, but believably odd.

Nani is the older sister, and Lilo’s legal guardian after the death of their parents. She’s voiced by Tia Carrere, a Hawaii native. We see her work as a waitress and beg for jobs after Stitch causes her to lose that job. And sadly, we know that she is a talented surfer. She had won trophies that she proudly displays in her room. She could have been going pro. Instead, she now looks after Lilo, supporting them financially while acting as mother to a damaged child. She indulges Lilo’s passions, never makes her feel odd for her world view. She prints the photos of tourists, adopts the blue dog because Lilo wants him, and doesn’t even place the blame on Lilo when Stitch makes her lose her job at the Luau. It leads to this heart-warming scene:

Lilo: Did you lose your job because of Stitch and me?

Lilo: Did you lose your job because of Stitch and me?


Nani: Nah. The manager’s a vampire.


Nani: He wanted me to join his legion of the undead.

I believe Nani loves Lilo. When Cobra tries to take Lilo away, she screams at him that Lilo needs her, that she understands her. In initial viewings of the movie so far, many mistook Nani for Lilo’s mother.

Lilo & Stitch was a big franchise for Disney. It spawned three more sequels and a pretty successful TV series that ran from 2003 until 2006. Unfortunately, the focus was on Stitch and the aliens. The heroic, interesting and relatable Nani and Lilo have been relegated to side-roles. I would like to see more of them in media and merchandise. Women of colour dolls that step outside the usual Disney princess proportions can only be a good thing.

The story was not meant to be about Lilo. She was added later and it shows in the final product. She is the heart of the series though, and I think we could use more characters like her and Nani in the media.


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