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.


Dissecting Disney: Esmeralda

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

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was released in 1998, and it was never truly well-received. The conception was too conflicting. For the most part, it is a beautifully animated and compelling story, told with a sincerity and that famous Disney charm. It was dark, but so was the original source. On the opposite side of the conflict, there was unfunny comic relief and annoying side-characters. This post isn’t about them though. It’s about Esmeralda.



Esmeralda is the Romani street dancer from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and possibly the only social justice warrior of the Disney renaissance. Princesses and heroines had stood up for honesty and against their foes before, but Esmeralda was speaking for more than that. She spoke for her people, and she spoke for justice. She is a woman of colour who takes no blows for who she is. She’s feisty, she’s quick-witted, but she is also very grounded and passionate.

Her only song is not about wanting more in life a la Belle (Reprise) or Part of Your World. She sings God Help the Outcasts, walking the other way from the selfish congregation as they wish for material possessions and glory. Her prayer is simple:

God help the outcasts, hungry from birth. Show them the mercy they don’t find on earth. God help my people, we look to You still. God help the outcasts, or nobody will.

She wants only for her people not to live in fear. It is a beautiful hymn with a deep message. She is called gypsy and has money she’s earned taken from her. She deals with racism and the corrupt law system that would sooner see her exterminated than protected. It is an allegory which works today, with stories like Sandra Bland and Mike Brown making international headlines.

A big criticism that is usually levied against Esmeralda is that she ends up with Phoebus. Phoebus is the captain of the guard, and he is the conventionally attractive pretty boy in the trio of interested men. The other two are the villain—the old and lecherous judge, Claude Frollo—and the hero of the movie—the disabled and unattractive Quasimodo. To Esmeralda’s credit though, Phoebus is the only option who treats her as a person. Frollo is an old pervert who wants to possess and burn Esmeralda, casting her as a witch in fantasies to explain his unholy thoughts. Quasimodo has the exact opposite problem; he casts her as an angel, and sees her as a perfect being. Being a sex object or on a pedestal are both dehumanising, albeit with different connotations. Esmeralda ends up with the man who shares her belief in justice, and who takes the time to get to know her as a person.

When a creep gets in your personal space [Caption reads: Do not want]

When a creep gets in your personal space

[caption reads: Do not want]

Esmeralda is sexualised in her design. She dances around a pole for money, which is pretty risqué for a Disney movie. Even her smoke silhouette is sexy. The infamous villain’s song Hellfire shows a smoke version of Esmeralda dancing in the flames of the fireplace in a fantasy sequence, beckoning and attempting to embrace Frollo. Animators had to go through frame-by-frame and made sure there was no errant nipple to offend the audience. In the commentary, director Kirk Wise said she was designed to look like she’d “been around”. It is unfortunate phrasing, meant to indicate she is older then the traditional heroine, but it adds to this sexualised image of a great character.

Disney is not the first adaptation to sexualise Esmeralda. Hugo’s Esmeralda was a beautiful 16 year-old girl who was desperately in love with Phoebus; she was not a sex siren. Yet many adaptations have written her as possessing sexual charms to some degree. Disney at least places the perversion on the characters to ogle her.

Frollo’s attitude towards her is especially relevant to a feminist interpretation. He is the essence of victim blaming. He blames her for his ‘unholy thoughts’, and calls her witch. He would rather believe she was manipulating him than admit that he is attracted to her. And there is no shame in that, she’s gorgeous.

That she is the only speaking female role outside the comic relief gargoyle is honestly a shame. Esmeralda has all the makings of Disney feminist fave. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a classic that needs more love than it’s received over the years. Its soundtrack is incredible, the hand-drawn animation still holds up well, and Esmeralda is one of the greatest female characters Disney has ever written.