As a child, and often still as an adult, I always identified with the music-loving, fish-whispering, button-pushing young hero Lilo Pelekai. I made friends out of bits of material, teased my older sister, and had a really nasty dog to keep me company. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the beloved Disney classic lilo and stitch, it’s worth remembering what makes Lilo so endearing and how it paved the way for more outspoken and offbeat female leads. Beyond being a deliciously morbid and creative outcast, Lilo is resilient, determined and loyal, showing audiences young and old that we deserve to be loved for, not in spite of, the things that make us special.
First of all, no one can deny that Lilo has a huge heart. She dances through life with the kind of wonder children possess and adults envy, seeing the beauty of every bikini-clad tourist on the beach and wishing on shooting stars. She fiercely loves and cares deeply, which we can see through her relationship with her older sister Nani and her continual attempts to connect with “friends” who ostracize her. At the end of the day, Lilo just wants to hula hoop, play dolls, and dance with Elvis with the people she cares about.
However, like any good character, Lilo also has some unfavorable characteristics. She is angry and impulsive, she has a tendency to bite first and ask questions later. Her frustration usually stems from feeling misunderstood and often points to her intense loneliness and desire to feel connected to others as she grieves the loss of her parents. This duality is perhaps best shown in her first scene in the film when one minute she’s handing a fish a peanut butter sandwich and the next she’s punching Mertle in the face at hula practice. Like any child working to discover herself, Lilo struggles to reconcile all the different parts of herself. She desperately wants to fit in with her peers, but she refuses to change who she is to do so.
For these reasons, it makes sense that the angel she desires would come in the form of a six-limbed alien tyrant with an anger problem. She calls him Stitch, and so begins the weirdest, most lovable buddy comedy you’ve ever seen. Lilo and Stitch, two hotheads with abandonment issues, tend to make things worse even when they have the best of intentions. For example, while Nani frantically searches the island for a job, Lilo tries to teach Stitch how to be a model citizen, and the pair leave a small path of destruction in their wake. They topple fruit stalls, scare old ladies and wreak havoc on the beach.
Even when he makes a mess, watching Lilo try to integrate Stitch into society, we see his belief in good and his desire to help others. We also get to see a smart young woman beyond her age, as Lilo and Nani struggle to keep her little family together, while well-meaning social worker Cobra Bubbles threatens to tear them apart. At first, Stitch only stays with Lilo to prevent her fellow aliens from capturing her, literally using her as a human shield. However, as the couple’s friendship continues to grow, they both find the sense of belonging they’ve been longing for and learn that sometimes the people they love stay.
Finally, like Stitch, Lilo is an undeniable weirdo, a term I use only with the utmost respect. She practices pickle jar voodoo and believes Pudge the fish controls the weather, takes the googly-eyed Disney girl mold they’ve prepared for her and smashes it with a meaty clenched fist. In the years since lilo and stitchDisney has further embraced the power of raw, headstrong girls, ever since Bravounderrated merida a vaiana. While these characters are far from perfect, they are independent, complex, and like Lilo, they dance to the beat of their own drum. Most importantly, they’re kind-hearted, too, even if sometimes that heart is hidden behind a steely exterior. By allowing these girls to be messy and multidimensional, we get a new generation of characters that show kids that it’s okay to be different.
As we all know, not all media ages well. However, even after twenty years, lilo and stitch stands the test of time. This film serves as a great exploration of grief and friendship, telling a complicated and beautiful story through the eyes of an equally complicated and beautiful young protagonist. By telling Lilo’s story in all its extravagant Elvis-loving glory, the filmmakers showed audiences that when you find the right people, you never have to doubt that you belong.