by Dan Green, Contributor
I’d like to tell you a story you’ve heard before. It’s even possible you’ve heard it recently since the folks at Disney did such a great job of it. It’s a tale of two sisters whose parents died tragically. The older sister is afraid she’s going to hurt her little sister, but does everything she can to protect her which makes her seem a little cold. The younger sister, on the other hand, is a little awkward and has a tendency of getting into trouble but what she is really looking for is love. The film is full of catchy hit songs and an emotional climax. Oh, and if you’re thinking it’s Frozen… you’d be in the wrong climate. I’m talking about the film that made Frozen possible: Lilo & Stitch.
Set on the island of Kaua’i, Hawaii, the movie follows the story of the alien experiment 626 as he escapes to Earth and forms a bond with native girl Lilo, but that story is only half of what we see. The unseen story is the tale of Lilo and Nani, and it’s this story that doesn’t get enough credit… mainly because most of it happens off screen before the film started. Still, without the story of Lilo and Nani, the rest of the film is just a collection of Elvis hits and sight gags. In fact, as I alluded earlier, Anna and Elsa might just have taken a peek at their playbook.
For plot reasons, i.e. Stitch’s inability to swim, his programming, etc., the film is set in Hawaii but without those limitations it could have been set anywhere. Nani is just old enough to take on guardianship of her much younger sister after their parents have died in a fatal accident, and is doing everything she can to provide for her knowing the consequences of failure. Lilo on the other hand is young, and dealing with things the only way a child of her age knows how… she lashes out, and is willing to grasp at anything that might make her life make sense again. Amazing how complex the story really is, isn’t it? If you were doing this story in New York City today, this might be the story of a teen mom and her child and their struggles to eke out a life.
Growing up, my mother was a social worker, first with Child Protective Services and then with an adoption agency dealing with foster care. I heard so many terrible stories and often hugged her as she cried on my shoulder, but occasionally there were stories that made her smile. I can say with absolute certainty, my mother’s favorite animated film was Lilo & Stitch.
Every time we watched, she would comment about how many times she wished the parents she’d seen tried HALF as hard as Nani to make life OK for their children. When she did come across a single parent trying that hard, she would talk about the strength and the courage it took for that person to take on the challenge of raising their siblings and putting their dreams on hold. To quote the film: “Ohana means family. Family means no one gets left behind, or forgotten.”
Nani does everything she can to make life normal for Lilo, and though they get angry with each other and don’t always like each other, they always love each other. Nani never blames Lilo for anything that goes wrong, and in fact in one of the earliest scenes Noni tries to make Lilo understand the seriousness of the situation amidst an epic tantrum. In the end, they yell at each other and they scream into pillows, but eventually they sit on Lilo’s bed and make up. Yes, Lilo and Stitch is a film about how an alien from outer space and a little girl from Kaua’i became friends…but in the face of all that, it’s the story of two sisters loving each other and surviving despite the world trying to tear them apart.
Before this, most Disney stories were about a romantic love saving the day and the prince swooping in to rescue the damsel with a few exceptions (Lion King, Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians… most of the talking animal films really), but here, though Stitch DOES save Lilo… it is Nani who takes charge and is the catalyst for their actions. This is the first time we truly get to see a family that is “Little and broken, but good… yeah, good.” Without Lilo and Nani clearing the way from their little tropical island, Anna and Elsa might never have been able to ‘Let it Go’ or ask the world ‘Do You Want to Build a Snowman?’ In fact, I get the feeling the writers knew that too… after all, Anna DOES wonder why Elsa couldn’t have had Tropical Magic to create white sand beaches and palm trees.