Family in Disney’s Lilo and Stitch
I just saw Lilo and Stitch for the very first time.
I know, I know, I should have seen it before. But it came out during a misguided teenage “too grown up for Disney” phase, and I never got around to watching it.
To be honest, I’m not sure whether that’s a good or a bad thing. Because Lilo and Stitch was possibly the most heartbreaking Disney movie I’ve ever seen.
You know how most Disney/Pixar movies have that one tear-jerking moment, when a character seems dead and all hope seems lost, but then something quickly swoops in to save the day and they all live happily ever after? The writers of Lilo and Stitch seemed to decide that making viewers cry once simply wasn’t enough, and made it their mission to make a movie that is an ever-growing ball of pain and heartbreak that makes the viewer choke on their tears until it finally reaches a bittersweet happy-ish conclusion.
Maybe I’m overstating it. But oh god, it hurt. And the reason it hurt so much was its heart-wrenching look at family.
After Lilo’s parents died in a car crash on a rainy day, she’s left in the care of nineteen year old sister, Nani. But when a visit from a social worker goes disastrously wrong, they’re at risk of being separated, and Lilo being put in the custody of someone who can “look out for her best interests” better than her struggling sister.
Oh, and when Nani lets Lilo adopt a dog, after hearing her wish on a star for a friend, they end up adopting a world-destroying alien instead. As you do.
The best thing about Lilo and Stitch is that both Lilo and Nani are wonderfully, painfully flawed. Lilo can be selfish and forgetful, prone to bursts of anger and violence, and spitefully mean to her sister in her grief. Nani is similarly overwhelmed by her grief for her parents and all this unexpected responsibility, and she can take this out on Lilo as well. They fight. They hurt one another. They’re hurting, and they’re struggling, and they add to one another’s pain in the process… but they also still love one another, despite everything.
Multiple times during the film, characters comment that it’s a “broken family,” and that phrase really gets to the heart of the movie’s heartbreak. Yes, Lilo and Nani love one another, but can they really be a family if they hurt one another too? Is being family enough, when everything else is falling apart? This is especially relevant for Nani, who has to deal with Lilo’s misbehavior and her own inability to find a job, and the question of whether she’s failing to be a good mom to her sister. Lilo tells her, “I like you better as a sister than a mom,” and their relationship is definitely strained by the fact that Nani has to try to reshape herself to fulfil a new role while dealing with her own grief, while still only being 19 herself and not having her own life figured out. She’s told that Lilo has to leave for her own good, leaving Nani with the sense that she has to lose her sister, as well as her parents, because she wasn’t good enough.
Which is why Stitch’s speech about family near the end of the movie packs such an emotional punch. “This is my family. I found it all on my own. It’s little, and broken, but still good.” Lilo and Nani can’t have the same relationship they used to have, and their family will never be the same… but the fact that things are small and broken doesn’t mean that they’re unsalvageable, or that their love and their struggles don’t count. No one will get left behind, no one will get forgotten, and they will forge their own unique family that’s just for them, and is as valid as any other.
And this family isn’t based solely on blood relationships — bringing us to Stitch’s real part in the story. As he comes to realize, he doesn’t have a family. He’s alone in the universe, and is lost… and Lilo’s response to his strangeness and destructiveness is to empathize with him and invite him to join her family instead. “Our family’s little now, and we don’t have many toys, but if you want, you could be a part of it.” And the movie doesn’t find a happy ending by solving all of the characters problems, but by repeating the idea that their family is a good one, and that they will never leave one another behind or forget one another. They’ve found one another, and they’ve accepted one another, and that is what matters.
Despite the alien element of the movie, it’s probably the realist thing Disney have ever done. I’ve praised Frozen before for being about the somewhat estranged relationship between two sisters, but that takes a very “inspiring, fun fantasy” approach — it has its sad moments, but it’s not real life. But the rawness of Lilo and Stitch causes physical pain, and its realness is reflected in every element of the movie, from the proportional way that Lilo and Nani are drawn, to the array of female faces in the background that go against the “all animated female faces are the same, because they have to be pretty” aesthetic of recent Disney movies.
It’s just a brilliant movie. Moving, entertaining, heartbreaking, and utterly feminist. It really deserves more love and attention than it receives.