For the first time in forever, “Lilo & Stitch” is getting the respect it deserves.
Long before Anna ever built a snowman or Elsa learned to let it go, the 2002 Disney film set the standard for animated stories about sisterhood.
But the success of “Frozen” and its sequel, which rank among the highest grossing animated films of all time, has “Lilo & Stitch” co-writer and director Chris Sanders feeling left out in the cold, particularly due to the praise the blockbuster franchise has received for its focus on familial love.
“To be clear, I think ‘Frozen’s’ great,” Sanders told The New York Times for an interview marking the film’s 20th anniversary. “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.’”
There’s no denying that “Lilo & Stitch” broke the mold that would allow future Disney films to tell more emotionally grounded stories about strong female characters.
Much like “Frozen,” the film centers on two sisters, Lilo and Nani, whose relationship is fractured after the death of their parents, leaving the latter to become the title character’s legal guardian. Their lives in Hawaii are upended by the arrival of the adorable but chaos-seeking alien Stitch, who helps remind the siblings about the true meaning of family ― or Ohana ― in the film’s most oft-quoted line.
Perhaps most notably, the film stands as a rare Disney film with a female lead that isn’t centered around a romance.
Sanders and producers explained they carefully crafted the story to reflect real-life issues and depict realistic female bodies, while also respecting the culture at the heart of the film by enlisting Hawaiian musicians and actors to inhabit the roles.
“When the film came out, that’s what a lot of critics talked about,” said producer Clark Spender. “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.”
“Lilo & Stitch” went onto become one of the studio’s most profitable films of the decade, grossing over $270 million at the global box office on a rather modest $80 million budget. The feature spawned two more sequels, and a live-action adaptation is also currently in the works.
The comparisons between the film and “Frozen” have since launched a social media dialogue about the groundbreaking approach “Lilo & Stitch” took to telling animated stories.
Sanders, who also provided the voice for the koala-esque creature, has gone on to make his mark on a slew of animated franchises since “Lilo & Stitch,” including directing the original “How To Train Your Dragon” and “The Croods” movies.