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‘Lilo & Stitch’ at 20: How It Broke the Mold Long Before ‘Moana’

When the director Chris Sanders was starting work on “Lilo & Stitch,” the film’s visual development supervisor, Sue Nichols, made a comparison that startled him.

“She did a side-by-side drawing of Mulan next to Nani,” Sanders said, referring to Lilo’s older sister. “And she pointed out that Mulan is actually missing pieces of her anatomy, if you look at how tall her torso is.”

Sanders, who wrote and directed “Lilo & Stitch” with Dean DeBlois, opted for a fuller-figured animation style for the movie, a comedy adventure that has garnered praise from critics and fans for its realistic body types, cultural accuracy and misunderstood protagonist in the two decades since its release on June 21, 2002.

The film tells the story of a young Hawaiian girl named Lilo whose life is upended when an alien fugitive, Stitch, crash-lands nearby. The film laid the groundwork for trends in recent Disney films like the lack of a major love story and a more downbeat protagonist.

“When we turned the clocks from the 1990s to the 2000s, everybody thought the world was going to come to an end,” said Shearon Roberts, the editor of the book “Recasting the Disney Princess in an Era of New Media and Social Movements” and an associate professor of mass communication at Xavier University in New Orleans. “So all the content they were creating was less the fairy tales we saw in the ’80s and ’90s and more this exploration of unknowns.”

Sanders had initially conceived the story as a children’s book, but he retooled the pitch for the big screen. It was an underdog from the start.

After a string of high-profile but expensive 1990s releases like “Atlantis” and “Tarzan” that cost $120 million or more, the “Lilo” producers aimed to make a smaller film for $80 million. DeBlois and Sanders, who’d worked together in the story department on the 1998 “Mulan,” reunited to co-direct and co-write. Daveigh Chase, a preteen who was already a veteran actress, voiced Lilo. But for Stitch, they went with Sanders.

“We didn’t want to go to a real actor like Danny DeVito, and then have the studio coming to us saying, ‘Why did you hire someone who’s a known entity, but they only say like 15 words?’” Sanders said.

“I love that that’s the way he remembers it,” said Clark Spencer, who produced the film and is now president of Walt Disney Animation Studios. “But this was Chris’s character from Day 1. He did the design; he knew what he wanted the character to be, the voice to sound like. I can’t imagine anyone but Chris’s voice for Stitch.”

Initially the story was going to take place in rural Kansas, but after an island vacation, Sanders decided to set the film in another remote location: Kauai, Hawaii.

He, DeBlois and other members of the creative team took another trip — together, this time — to Kauai, talking to locals and familiarizing themselves with Hawaiian culture.

“One thing we learned from working on ‘Mulan’ is that when you’re setting a story in a specific place in the real world, there are places you can’t go,” DeBlois said. “There are some cultural elements you can’t use because you’re an outsider.”

So they enlisted the Hawaiian musician Mark Keali’i Ho’omalu to consult on the hula dancing and choral arrangements, and cast members raised in Hawaii — Tia Carrere, who voiced Nani, and Jason Scott Lee, who played her boyfriend — suggested edits to better reflect the colloquial dialect of Kauai.

The production did not take steps that “Moana” would, like hiring a Hawaiian writing and directing team, though Roberts, the Xavier University scholar, said its more realistic depiction of Hawaii was a start.

“Disney has really struggled to tell Asian-Pacific stories,” she said. “That’s why they spent so much time putting together a brain trust around ‘Moana,’ a film that had a far better reception, from the casting to making sure that certain parts of the story arch didn’t border on stereotype. So there would be a few more lessons about bringing people to the table to support their writing team.”

“Lilo & Stitch” did touch on real-world issues that young audience members might relate to: Nani, forced to become Lilo’s legal guardian after their parents are killed in a car crash, faces parenting struggles. And a social worker always seems to catch Nani and Lilo at their worst.

Still, the filmmakers received negative feedback at the first screening, Sanders said: Viewers didn’t like that Nani grabbed Lilo by the wrist in a scene because they mistakenly believed Nani was Lilo’s mother.

The filmmakers clarified that with a Howard Ashman trick. “He said, ‘If you want the audience to remember something, you have to say it three times, one after the other,’” Spencer said. “So we redid the scene,” making sure that Lilo and Nani mention they’re sisters three times in a row.

But the team wouldn’t edit the film in response to another complaint, Spencer said: Audiences didn’t like how much Nani and Lilo yelled at each other.

“Chris, Dean and I would say, ‘But that’s real,’” Spencer said. “This is a moment when Nani is feeling pressure, when Lilo is feeling out of place and trying to figure out who she is.”

The filmmakers also prioritized realism in another area: A more realistic depiction of female bodies. Lilo is short and chubby, and Nani has thick thighs and what Sanders called “a real pelvis.”

Roberts, the scholar, said the film was a notable departure from typical Disney fare. “The decade before, the princesses had fully developed adult women’s bodies,” she said. “But we allow Lilo to still be childlike. Her face is very innocent. We have a body that’s not a size 0 — we have girlhood fully embodied in our dimensions.”

Lilo is allowed to be a child personality-wise, too: “One of the tropes in these movies is that kids are always smarter, better, more tuned in than the adults, who are played as buffoons,” Sanders said. “But we didn’t do that. Lilo bites a little girl, she throws a fit and she says things that are just nonsensical. She’s acting like an actual kid.”

Lilo, Roberts said, was the rare female Disney animated lead without a love interest (unless you count her passion for Elvis). In choosing to focus instead on Lilo and Nani’s sisterhood, the studio finally accomplished the reversal of an archetype that had been established as far back as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” she added.

Disney had been “slowly picking away at the ‘Some day my prince will come’ message in the ’90s,” she said, adding that the earlier films like “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “Mulan” proved to Disney that a film with a female lead as strong as her male love interest could make money. “So Lilo then takes that one step forward by eliminating the male love interest.”

Janet Wasko, the author of “Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy,” noted that by focusing on a female lead sans a romance or marriage plot, “Lilo & Stitch” prefigured future female Disney stars like Moana, Merida from “Brave” and Riley from “Inside Out.”

“Lilo & Stitch” proved to be a critical and commercial success, opening just $500,000 behind the Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller “Minority Report” and eventually earning $273 million globally. (It also picked up an Oscar nomination for best animated feature but lost to “Spirited Away” from Hayao Miyazaki.) “Lilo” spawned a franchise that would encompass three direct-to-video sequels and three television series, as well as a number of theme park rides. There’s even a live-action remake in development.

“It’s one of the films where when people say, ‘What have you worked on?’ you literally feel a change when you say ‘Lilo & Stitch,’” Spencer said.

Fans have repeatedly told him how they can relate — to Lilo’s frustration over feeling misunderstood, to Nani’s determination in spite of a world that continually thwarts her good intentions, even to Stitch’s rebellious nature.

“When the film came out, that’s what a lot of critics talked about,” he said. “Those moments that were based in reality in a way that people could see themselves in, and it didn’t feel like they were cartoon characters.”

For his part, Sanders wishes more people would notice how the relationship between the two sisters anticipates “Frozen” by more than a decade.

“To be clear, I think ‘Frozen’’s great,” he said. “But it was a little bit frustrating for me because people were like, ‘Finally, a nonromantic relationship with these two girls,’ and I thought, ‘We did that! That has absolutely been done before.’”

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