As a creative writing teacher, which I’m sure at least a few of you know I am, I get asked a lot by my students what they should actually be watching in terms of movies. I mean, they’ve heard all my rants about how Beauty and the Beast is an abuse narrative, and how Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are both really, really rapey. And they are fully aware of how much I don’t like Pocohontas for…pretty much all the reasons, honestly.
So I get asked what, of all of the Disney movies I actually do like. And my answer is usually the same. I like movies with prominent female characters, diversity, strong storylines, and interesting philosophical points, like Lilo and Stitch and The Lion King and Balto and Prince of Egypt and Mulan.
And then it hit me. These are exactly the kind of movies we talk about here on this site. Only, you know, we rarely take the opportunity to talk about movies made for kids. And that’s kind of really a shame.
Why? Well, childhood is when our brains are the squishiest. It’s when we’re learning about the world and how stuff works. It’s when we’re gaining the values and perceptions that we will either accept or struggle against as adults. In short, childhood is when we do most of our learning about who we are and who we want to be.
Which is why I find it really weird that we have so little regard as a culture for kids’ movies and media in general. I mean, these are the films and TV shows and books that are going to shape how the next generation views the world. Shouldn’t we, maybe, pay attention to that? It seems kind of important.
We’re full circle here. It is important, and that’s why, for the next however long it takes for me to run out of things to talk about we’re going to take one day a week and discuss children’s media. Because it really does matter, and I’ve been doing you all a disservice by pretending it doesn’t.
All that having been said, of course, let’s get started, shall we?
To begin, I want to talk about Lilo and Stitch. Not only is this movie fun, it’s also kind of, well, perfect. It’s the movie that I make my students watch and analyze. It has everything I really look for in a movie, and it manages to deal with deep and meaningful social and emotional issues without becoming preachy or maudlin. In short, I love this movie. It makes me happy. Allow me to tell you why.
For starters, the plot is completely bonkers. The story begins with an intergalactic hearing on the potentially criminal genetic experiments of Dr. Jumba. Jumba is charged with using illegal experimental techniques to create a monster, Experiment 626, a blue, furry death machine that has only one mission: to find and destroy civilization. Understandably, the council votes to imprison Jumba and send Experiment 626 to a holding facility indefinitely.
Only 626 isn’t going down without a fight, and he is alarmingly good at fighting. He manages to escape from his cage on the carrier, then jettison himself from the carrier, and eventually manage to send himself flinging towards Earth. And, improbably, he manages to land on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean: Hawaii.
Or, well, technically, one of the Hawaiian islands. Not Oahu or any of the major ones. Experiment 626 has the “misfortune” of landing on a tiny, not particularly populated island with no major cities or even really any highways. Just a nice quiet place where the people are generally friendly, and most everyone knows everyone else. In other words, the last place on Earth he wanted to land.
The aliens aren’t stupid, so they know they have to go after their rogue creature of destruction. But since none of them really know what the monster is capable of, and one of their own scientists insists that they can’t just nuke the planet (it’s a wildlife preserve for mosquitoes), they have to send down a team to bring 626 back. A team consisting of Jumba and Pleakley, the bumbling anthropologist. Wacky hijinks ensue.
Meanwhile, in Hawaii, a little girl named Lilo is kind of having a lot of trouble dealing with…everything. She’s kind of weird, very melodramatic, angry, and frustrated. Which are all very understandable things for a little girl who has just lost her parents to be feeling. Oh, did I mention that? Lilo is an orphan being raised by her older sister Nani. Being raised, I should add, not particularly well.
Not that this is an indictment of Nani either, for the record. Nani, who is also still deeply grieving their parents, has been forced to grow up very fast, and is now tasked with caring and providing for her little sister, a role she never intended to play. Nani, who the story suggests is barely out of her teens if she is at all, struggles to make ends meet and provide Lilo with proper care, something Lilo thwarts at every opportunity.
What makes matters worse is that their social worker, Mr. Cobra Bubbles, has taken a keen interest in the family, worried that Nani is leaving Lilo alone and that she isn’t receiving adequate care and attention. It’s kind of a mess.
Into this falls Experiment 626, who runs into the little family when they come to pick out a dog from the shelter. The dog is so that Lilo won’ t be alone so much when Nani has to work and so that they have some extra security. And Lilo, being the little weirdo she is, picks 626, a blue dog with alarmingly alien features and an extra set of arms (that he hides). Still, definitely doesn’t look like a dog. She loves him on sight and names him Stitch.
Stitch, for his part, doesn’t really have to go with Lilo at all, but decides to when he runs into Jumba and Pleakley and realizes that they won’t attack him if he sticks with the small human girl. So Stitch and Lilo are stuck together, for better or worse.
And in the beginning, it’s mostly worse. Stitch manages to get Nani fired from her job, which makes Mr. Bubbles very upset, and then accidentally sabotages her every attempt to find a new one, as those attempts collide with Lilo’s efforts to make him into a “model citizen”. Things do not look particularly bright for our heroes.
Just when things start to seem darkest, though, Stitch starts to change. He begins to think about his actions more. He stops trying to mindlessly destroy. He actually tries. And of course it’s too little too late, as another intergalactic collector has come to try to bring him to justice, and Mr. Bubbles is at the end of his rope and ready to remove Lilo from her home situation, but it’s still important. Stitch finally understands that it matters what we do because it will affect other people.
Which is when the whole story goes to hell. I’m not going to fully explain the end of the movie, because I’d like to leave a little bit of mystery here (though, if you haven’t seen it, you should probably do that now), but I will say this: in the end, it all comes down to family, and more than that, it all comes down to how you understand others.
Stitch’s great flaw in the beginning, and Lilo’s flaw too, is that he’s selfish. He thinks of no one but himself. Lilo also has this problem, and manages to constantly work against her own better interest by refusing to accept that the needs of others are equal to her immediate desires. When she wants something, she has trouble listening to reason about why she can’t have it. And when Nani annoys her, Lilo has no problem making her life hell. Even if that means that in the long run she’ll be taken away. Because Lilo is a little kid, as is Stitch, effectively, and therefore has no real sense of long term consequences.
And this is a bad thing. The movie very clearly shows that this kind of selfish behavior is bad and wrong and will make you unhappy. It doesn’t say that Lilo is a terrible person for indulging in it, nor does it suggest that it’s completely unreasonable that she might be unhappy. It doesn’t even say that Stitch should have immediately known how to break his programming to destroy. Not at all. Instead, the film gives us a narrative about maturity and empathy. About learning how to regard others, and about how to sacrifice for the good of the community, or the family.
Lilo and Stitch both get their happy ending because they learn how to be parts of the whole, instead of living alone. And I freaking love that.
All that is all well and good and a huge part of why I recommend the movie, but there are other reasons. For starters, who doesn’t appreciate a Disney movie with not just one, but two female characters of color in the lead? In fact, there is only one named white person in the film, and she is a relatively minor character. So that’s pretty cool.
But more than just reaching a quota or something, the movie actually deals with some really prickly issues. I mean, we actually start out with a trial talking about genetic experimentation and questions of personhood and morality, then take a nice quick detour into whether or not the death penalty is moral, and then swiftly pop down to Earth for a discourse on the Social Services system and what it means to “provide for” a child.
Oh yeah, in case you missed that, there’s a very interesting subplot in the film that I didn’t notice until I rewatched it as an adult, but Nani’s efforts to care for Lilo in a way that would actually be common in traditional Hawaiian culture, ie, letting her sometimes fall back on the care of the community and relying on extended family and pseudo-family ties, is judged as inadequate by the social services system. It’s not explicit, but it’s interesting to note how this movie ties in with the history of social services’ treatment of indigenous families.
I suppose what I mean to say there is that I went to a seminar on the Indian Child Welfare Act and Solutions Based Care for social services providers, and since then I’ve been very interested in the topic.
Anyway, this is a Disney movie, and it’s dealing with death, grief, and the aftermath of horrific events. It covers big social issues with grace and humanity, and it manages to come out with an answer that is both big enough to talk to the larger issues, and small enough to deal with the little ones: Listen to each other. Have compassion. And never forget that you are part of a family.
When I think about messages I want to send to the next generation, or even just messages that I’m glad I got when I was a kid (though I wasn’t very young when this movie came out), this is what comes to mind. Lilo and Stitch is silly and weird and kooky, but it’s also deep and heavy and important. And that’s good. That’s not something we should shy away from because we assume that children need to be protected from the bad stuff in the world. Yes, protect them, but don’t keep them ignorant. Because ignorance is not bliss, it’s devastating.
The best gift you can give your child is that of compassion for others. Hands down.