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Riding a Wave 

They say you can never go back, but what they hell do they know, anyway? Well, maybe you can, maybe you can't, but Disney certainly makes a concerted effort to turn back the clock a little with Lilo & Stitch, a mixed bag of a Cartoon With a Message whose sense of nostalgia washes up and recedes like so many waves against a Hawaiian beach.

At its best, Lilo & Stitch hearkens to that golden era of Disney films of the 1930s and '40s where an artist's brushstroke was as close to pop art as you could get, and where an endearing pearl of wisdom was wrapped snugly inside an oyster of whimsical entertainment. At its worst, Lilo & Stitch hearkens to that same golden era with curiously conservative strands that have threaded through Disney films all the way up to today. Only this time, for whatever reason, the film is set in Hawaii, and darn it if those cute Hawaiians surf by day and hula-dance in grass skirts at night under the glow of a tiki torch. It's as if Walt was conducting the affair through his cryogenic crypt. Argh. Worse, it's not really all that funny. Double argh.

If it were being graded on animation and outright cuteness alone, Lilo & Stitch would pass with flying colors -- of cottony blues and greens, to be exact. Forsaking for a moment the hip computer-generated animation that rules the day -- for better, for worse -- filmmakers Chris Sanders and Dean Deblois create bold, round foreground characters against blissful background settings. Imagine a Monet watercolor sketch, and you get an idea of the blissful vibe at play here in their version of paradise. And though you can feel the huffing and puffing to tug at every little tyke's heart strings, there is an undeniable warmth created in the kindred-spirit friendship of latchkey rebel Lilo and her poorly camouflaged alien hellchild cum household pet Stitch.

After some flimsy set-up on Earth and in space -- Lilo's an orphaned child raised by her flustered sister, Stitch is a manufactured Tasmanian Devil whose escape leads him to Oahu -- the story kicks into gear. They're both outcasts who need each other more than they realize, creatures of bad habits who need unconditional love. Thus spurts out the movie's message: "When it comes to family, nobody gets left behind, or forgotten."

But Sanders and Deblois keep shooting themselves in the foot with a meandering storyline, some bizarre asides and an Elvis Presley soundtrack that, while great to listen to, feels entirely tossed in and (still worse) doesn't even include "Blue Hawaii." I mean, sheesh, when in Rome ... .

The saddest part of Lilo & Stitch is, even clocking in at a kid-friendly 85 minutes, it still feels a tad strung out. So while the two protagonists dodge social workers and space cops from outer space, we just kick back, lap up the tasty waves and Elvis/Hawaiian tunes, and soak it all in. OK. I'm game. But it was a little disconcerting to listen to the deathly quiet among the kids at the matinee I attended. Why, it was so quiet you could hear both cell-phone calls a mommy felt compelled to take. Was it that boring? Well ... .

Not really, and again, the animation saved the day. If Disney's trying to reverse course a little and try to let simplicity rule instead of its over-the-top, see-what-we-learned-yesterday animation techniques and the latest Elton John string-and-piano fest, kudos to them. It's so refreshing to see hand-painted animation that it really does take you back, not only to the Disney classics of yore but also the Saturday morning looniness of Warner Brothers, where backgrounds looked like adolescent landscapes. Here they're so sublime and arresting -- maybe that's why they chose Hawaii -- that it felt like watching a movie from a couch and not a stadium seat.

And we're feeling truly forgiving, so we'll excuse the Hawaiian stereotyping with the knowledge they used actual Hawaiians -- Tia Carrere as sister Nani and Jason Scott Lee as love interest/surfer dude David -- to provide two of the key voices.

But guys, really, where are the laughs? I mean, if they're going take a page or two from the broad slapstick moments of a Looney Tune, make it loony already. Instead, we get lots of house-wrecking by Stitch, who is sort of tamed into submission by Lilo's love assault, and people stepping on toes followed by that "who, me?" expression.

Lilo & Stitch could have been much better if Sanders and Deblois had trusted their instincts a little more and rode the wave of nostalgia with a little more precision. But if the worst you can say is there's not much beyond something that's easy on the eyes and ears, maybe it is best to just sit back and lounge around on this pleasant-enough beach of a movie. It's easier that way.

click to enlarge Hula-dancing Hawaiians? Lilo shows Stitch some of her native moves in Disney's nostalgic animation effort Lilo & Stitch.
  • Hula-dancing Hawaiians? Lilo shows Stitch some of her native moves in Disney's nostalgic animation effort Lilo & Stitch.


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