Lilo & Stitch: Special Edition Review
The original DVD release of Lilo & Stitch was a single-disc affair with only a bare minimum of bonus materials, most of them aimed at very young children. Although a 2-disc special edition was rumoured to be in production at that point, the release of the single-disc version roughly coincided with an announcement from Disney's chairman, the widely-despised Michael Eisner, that the studio was abandoning its 2-disc special edition line-up, because apparently parent's don't like having to change discs for their children. (That said, quite why any parents with children young enough to be unable to swap discs by themselves would be buying the 2-disc variants in the first place, and indeed why a young child would be interested in the documentary materials contained on the second disc in the first place, remain a mystery to me.) Unsurprisingly, this new venture lasted only a few months, with a number of new 2-disc releases being announced almost immediately. One of the announced special editions (now labelled "Masterpiece Editions") was Lilo & Stitch, with a tentative release date of October 2004. The buzz from those with contacts at Disney was that this special edition had been designed from the outset by the film's crew to be the most in-depth and feature-packed Disney DVD ever, and expectations have been unsurprisingly high since then. However, Disney recently dropped the bombshell that they would be holding the release of the 2-disc set back until some time in 2005, to coincide with the straight-to-video release of the cheapquel Lilo & Stitch 2 (those who endured the horror of last year's Stitch: The Movie will no doubt be wringing their hands in horror at the prospect of yet another of these monstrosities). Yet, in a situation that seems eerily similar to that of the special edition of The Iron Giant, still delayed in the US but released last summer in Korea, Disney's Italian distribution wing has chosen to go ahead with the originally scheduled release date, September 23rd 2004.
Lilo & Stitch is the single greatest achievement of the Walt Disney studio in recent years, standing head and shoulders above anything that the company has been responsible for in the last decade. A deliberately cartoony, retro, 2D-animated feature released at the height of the recent 3D craze, it stands as ample proof that the best work is produced by a small group of dedicated artists left to their own devices without corporate interference. One of the four nominees for the Best Animated Feature award at the 2002 Academy Awards, Lilo & Stitch (along with its contemporaries Treasure Planet, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Ice Age, all vastly inferior products) lost out to Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece Spirited Away, but the film remains an incredible piece of work, and it is scarcely possible to believe that it came out of the creativity-stifling corporate culture of the Mouse House.
The crazy alien scientist Dr. Jumba Jookiba has created his most diabolical invention yet: Experiment 626. An insane six-legged beast resembling a koala bear, 626 is a liability, and as a result Jumba is thrown in jail by the alien council. 626, however, manages to escape and crash-lands on Earth: Hawaii, to be precise. There, he meets Lilo, a lonely young girl shunned by her peers for being just a little too strange and violent. Living with her older sister Nani following the death of their parents, Lilo strikes an unlikely bond with 626, whom she names "Stitch". Adversity quickly besets them on more than one front, however, as Jumba is tasked to go to Earth and apprehend Stitch, chaperoned by planetary expert Agent Pleakley, while at the same time Nani and Lilo are menaced by sinister social worker Cobra Bubbles, who none too subtly hints that, unless the family sorts itself out, he will take Lilo away from Nani.
Arriving shortly after the interesting but underwhelming turkey Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Lilo & Stitch prove to be a breath of fresh air for audience and made significantly more money at the box office than most of its predecessors for some time, despite having been made for a substantially lower budget. Based on an idea by co-writer/director Chris Sanders from the mid-1980s, this quirky tale of a psychopathic alien befriending a small child seemed about as un-Disney as possible, and for a while a few more hopeful people speculated that it might be representative of a new direction and a new era of success for the studio. (Sadly, this was not to be, and after the disappointing box office performance of the lacklustre Brother Bear, management closed down the Florida studio that had produced it, Lilo & Stitch and the impressive Mulan.) A first-time director, Sanders had worked at Disney since the early 90s, contributing to the design and story of a number of hugely successful ventures, including Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. Joining him to share the writing and directing reins was fellow storyman Dean DeBlois, a Canadian who had, at that point, only worked at the studio for a short time, having started in layout and been fast-tracked to the story department during the development of Mulan.
The film's strongest asset is its uniform look and feel. Clearly the product of a unique and singular vision, unlike other recent Disney movies, most of which feel like melting-pot committee products, Lilo & Stitch looks completely unique thanks to Chris Sanders' wonderful drawing style, which was adapted to animation with surprising success. Comprised entirely of soft, rounded shapes and flat washes of colour with little extraneous detail, the look of the movie is warm and inviting - a throwback to the Disney films of the 1940s. Indeed, the nostalgia extends to the backgrounds, which were painstakingly painted with watercolours, a practice not used since 1941's Dumbo (whose simplified designs and strong emotional core are an obvious influence). Largely eschewing 3D animation, Lilo & Stitch feels like a product of a different era, which is surprising considering that tonally it is an extremely modern and irreverent piece of work, filled with off-the-wall comedy and references to other films, both Disney and otherwise. Equally unusual is the use of Elvis Presley, whose music crops up on various occasions, and proves to be the source of some hilarious gags, including Lilo using Stitch as a makeshift loudspeaker for her record of "Suspicious Minds", and a bizarre sequence involving Stitch dressing up as the King and miming to "Devil in Disguise" on the beach.
The film's overall theme is that of "Ohana", a Hawaiian phrase that loosely translates as "no-one gets left behind". This central concept of accepting others despite their quirks and differences works a good deal better than the ham-fisted messages that we have been force-fed in many recent Disney films, and many moments are genuinely touching despite the weirdness of the characters and humour. Indeed, Lilo & Stitch is almost up there with The Iron Giant, another animated film with a similar story and message, in terms of genuine warmth. It is this ability to juggle the serious and comedic elements that made Sanders' and Deblois' work on Mulan's story elements to successful, and they definitely manage to one-up themselves on Lilo & Stitch. It is extremely likely that the primary reason for the film's quality is the fact that it was led through production by two men whose primary experience was with story development, an aspect of filmmaking that seems to have been increasingly thrown to the side in recent Disney efforts.
** Spoilers begin here so be warned! **
If the film has any obvious flaws, they come to a head during the third act, which seems somewhat rushed and also includes a couple of plot holes. The most obvious of these is the character of Cobra Bubbles, who at the end is revealed to be a former CIA agent and someone who is more than aware of the existence and habits of aliens. Given this revelation, it seems very odd that not only did he not guess Stitch's true identity, but also that he didn't believe Lilo when she, on at least two occasions, told him that she was being attacked by aliens. The bonus features on the DVD reveal that the second act was largely reworked while the first and final acts remained more or less unchanged, and I suspect that these drastic modifications are the reason that a number of loose ends are not quite tied up. Also slightly annoying is the readiness with which Stitch is forgiven - he did, after all, destroy Nani and Lilo's home and repeatedly put their lives at risk - but this overly convenient happy ending is symptomatic of virtually every Disney movie and seems like small fry after the 80 minutes of sheer enjoyment that has preceded it.
Although this 2-disc special edition seems, at this stage, only to have been released in Italy, English-speaking customers can buy it safe in the knowledge that both discs are fully set up for English playback. The first disc is essentially a dual English-Italian affair, with an option to display the menus in either language. Disc 2 is more international, featuring English audio and menus and optional French, Italian, Spanish and Dutch subtitles and menus. It's a shame that none of the bonus features have been subtitled in English, but perhaps not surprising given that these discs were not intended for English-speaking customers (and, given Disney's track record, it is unlikely that the US release's bonus features will be subtitled at all). More importantly, the version of the film featured here is the original version, rather than the modified UK version which replaced a shot of a washing-machine with one of a cupboard in order to avoid a "12" certificate (quite possibly the most ridiculous classification decision the BBFC have made in recent years). Further still, the UK version inserted a tacky Gareth Gates cover of Elvis Presley's Suspicious Minds into the closing credits, which is mercifully absent here, although the teenybopper song that was present in both editions and, naturally, appears here, is no better.
The film's anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer is noticeably sharper than its counterpart on the single-disc US DVD, with a large amount of additional fine detail and significantly less edge enhancement. Given the fact that both obviously came from the same digital source, colours, brightness and contrast are identical on both versions. This transfer is, however, let down by some fairly ugly compression problems. Shots involving panning and fast movement frequently break up into large marco-blocks, and mosquito noise is evident on character outlines on numerous occasions. Still, Lilo & Stitch manages to avoid the usual problem of rough banded gradients that seems to show up on so many digitally sourced animated DVDs, although this is admittedly due to the fact that the film has few, if any, gradient effects. Overall, despite the compression problems, I would expect that most people will be very satisfied with this transfer.
The three featured audio mixes include the same English Dolby Digital 5.1 track that appeared on previous releases, as well as Italian Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 dubs. It is perhaps slightly disappointing that English DTS wasn't included (so far, the cut UK single-disc edition appears to be the only release to have included such an option), but given the strength of the Dolby track, it really isn't a big loss. This is a very solid, enveloping mix, making occasional but effective use of the rear channels to add depth to the proceedings. The subwoofer is used actively and the sound stage feels sufficiently deep at all times, making this one of Disney's best audio mixes for an animated feature.
Disc 1 kicks off with a collection of extras that are, for the most part, carried over from the earlier single-disc release. Missing from this new edition are a 4-minute featurette entitled "The look of Lilo & Stitch", which briefly covered the film's unique visual style, and the 20-minute documentary "On Location with the Directors", much of which is included in a more extended format on Disc 2 of this new set. Customers who previously owned the cut UK version of Lilo & Stitch will also note, albeit probably with some jubilation, that there is no sign of the Gareth Gates music video that adorned that package either. Instead, a new music video for a song called "Your 'Ohana'" (which doesn't appear anywhere in the movie) is featured here, set to footage from the film.
The most substantial new bonus feature on Disc 1 is a Commentary featuring producer Clark Spencer and co-writers/directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois. This is a lighthearted, fact-filled track that actually leaves you with a feeling that you have learned something worthwhile about character motivations, as well as the ideas behind the film and their implementation. Unlike most Disney commentaries, there is surprisingly little name-dropping, with the speakers preferring to discuss the movie itself rather than the people behind it. There are a number of gaps in the commentary which, to me, sound suspiciously like cuts along the lines of those applied to the commentaries on Fox's Family Guy DVDs, which is disappointing, but overall this is a very worthwhile track - easily one of the best I've heard for a Disney movie.
The second disc takes the form of a lengthy documentary, split into a number of different chapters. Most of the chapters have a number of what are identified as "footnotes", which include interviews, image galleries, deleted scenes, early pencil tests and alternate versions of finished scenes. The individual chapters and footnotes can all be accessed individually from various menu screens, or the entire documentary can be played all the way through. When selecting the "play all" function, the list of footnotes will still appear at the end of the relevant chapters, but if a footnote is not selected, the next chapter will automatically play after about 30 seconds. Personally I would have preferred an option that would simply play everything through from beginning to end, but this solution is not bad at all, and is certainly preferable to the infuriating mess that was Disc 2 of The Lion King's Platinum Edition, where each individual section (Story, Music, etc.) had to be selected separately.
The documentary has a running time of slightly over two hours, but because of the numerous footnotes it actually ends up lasting for more like three and a half if everything is watched from beginning to end. Split into 21 separate chapters, the documentary will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the making of Lilo & Stitch, and then some. Many of the key participants are interviewed, including Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois, Clark Spencer, executive vice president Pam Coats, art director Ric Sluiter, various animators and supervising animators, and even the infuriating former feature animation president Thomas Schumacher (and the man many credit with running Disney Feature Animation into the ground), who spews out oodles of praise for everyone involved in the making of the film (and the best part is that you know he doesn't mean a word of it). A huge amount of fascinating behind-the-scenes footage is present here, including the team's research trip to Hawaii, a story pitch meeting, lectures to the animators by the supervising animators of Lilo and Stitch (Andreas Deja and Alex Kupershmidt respectively), voice recording and scoring sessions, culminating with the premiere and trips to showcase the film at various film festivals, including Cannes.
Above: before and after - changes made to appease soccer moms.
Above: this concept, involving Stitch blowing up the house by filling it with gas, was also snuffed out.
Above: before and after - changes made to avoid September 11 connotations.
Most interesting is an extended featurette on two sequences that were altered before the finished film was released, namely the one in which Jumba, Pleakley, Nani and Stitch pursue Captain Gantu in their spaceship, and an earlier one involving Jumba breaking into Nani and Lilo's home to apprehend Stitch. Poor quality but watchable versions of the original unaltered editions are provided to put the changes into context. In the case of the former, the original idea was for the gang to steal a jumbo jet and pilot it through a city area, but the events of September 11th prompted the directors to opt for some replacements, which involved changing the plane into a spaceship and moving the action away from the city. Ultimately, these changes make little difference to the way the scene plays out, although it does result in a minor error in that Pleakley refers to "theft", despite the fact that nothing is actually stolen in the final version. In the case of the latter scene, however, the changes are quite substantial and in my opinion not for the better. The original version is significantly more violent and in my opinion a lot more satisfying, involving a lot more gunplay and chainsaw action. The scene culminates in a gas explosion that destroys the house, which proves to be much more entertaining than the "hot potato" game in the final version.
This is overall a wonderful collection of extras, giving a genuine insight into the making of the film. The "fly on the wall" nature of the documentary gives it a sense of sincerity and immediacy that is generally not found in Disney's glossier documentaries, most of which feature members of the crew sitting in front of colourful backgrounds talking about the production process several months (or years) after the fact. My only real disappointment with this set is that the film's theatrical trailer, which was absent from the original single-disc release, has not been included here. Overall, though, it is difficult to fault this fascinating look into the creation of the film, which absolutely deserves a 10/10.
Bold, brash and genuinely funny, Lilo & Stitch is a breath of fresh air compared to most of Disney's recent releases. A rare example of a film allowed to be created without executive interference, this release comes highly recommended, both for the quality of the film itself and for its incredibly insightful bonus features. If you're fed up waiting for Disney to release this special edition in the US or UK, the perfect response is to buy this version and show that, unlike them, you are not prepared to wait.