Disney’s new animated feature “Lilo & Stitch,” though made by hand in the old-fashioned, non-computer way and boasting watercolor backgrounds not used since “Dumbo” in 1941, is an innovative picture in other respects. Only the second film made at the company’s Orlando studio (the first was “Mulan”), it’s the brainchild of young filmmakers–among them two first-timers who visited Dallas recently on a promotional tour, producer Clark Spencer and co-writer/director Dean DeBlois. DeBlois, a Canadian who joined Disney in 1994 after a four-year stint with Don Bluth’s Irish animation company, worked as a layout and story artist before collaborating with Chris Sanders in scripting and helming the movie, while Spencer was involved in studio and animation management before taking on his initial producing assignment.
“We promised the studio that we wanted to break away from a few of the conventions,” DeBlois said of himself and Sanders, who had the original idea about an little creature and a child, which developed over time into a story about a mischievous alien troublemaker and the orphaned Hawaiian girl who adopts him. “We wanted to create a story that was largely original, that had some elements of familiarity and what people expect going into a Disney film but enough new story ideas and new territory that it would feel different. And in terms of doing that we promised a film that would be less expensive and that could be done in a shorter time frame with a smaller crew.” Studio executives offered them a larger budget with the proviso that the picture would have to be pushed back on the schedule, but the fledgling duo declined. “We’d rather spend less money, make a smart movie, put it out there, and hopefully it will recoup its money and beyond…than to take a huge budget and gamble it on something that had been untested,” DeBlois explained.
Spencer was somewhat surprised to get the call to serve as producer. “I think that they approached me to do it because I was already working at the Orlando studio, so I knew all the artists. And when I met with the two directors as they were looking at producers, they were intrigued by the fact that I had not produced a film before. They wanted to make this film unconventional in terms of its storytelling, but also in terms of the way we make movies. They wanted to kind of break a batch of barriers. I think they thought it would be interesting to take somebody who hadn’t produced before, because I wouldn’t have any sense of, ‘Well, this is how we always do it.’ I’d be the person saying, ‘Let’s try that and see what happens.'”
One of the choices was to do the backgrounds in watercolors rather than acrylic–something that hadn’t been attempted in six decades. Spencer admitted that as producer he had some initial misgivings about attempting it: “Everything was done by hand, [and watercolor is] a very unforgiving art form–you make a mistake, you start over. So there was a little bit of hesitation from my standpoint, the production standpoint–we haven’t done it forever, and it’s unforgiving. [We had to ask] is this really the right thing to do, given we had a pretty tight production schedule? But we knew it was the right look for the film. It gives it this wonderful, nostalgic look and feel. It also fits Hawaii, [and] the character design, which is kind of round and chubby.” And, he noted, the concerns proved unwarranted, since the artists soon mastered the technique: “They became so adept at what they were doing that they actually were able to do it more quickly” than conventional backgrounding.
DeBlois similarly remarked on the “children’s book illustration feel” that the drawing style brought to the project. He described “Lilo & Stitch” as “a deliberate callback to films like ‘Dumbo’ and ‘Bambi,’ where things were huggable and cute. We wanted to do away with angles, with letting the art director take over. We wanted to make a huggable film. We chose watercolors because we wanted it to be relaxed and nostalgic. We wanted the painter’s hand to be visible on screen.” He cited Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” and Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” as inspirations in terms of both style and content, to which Spencer added anime. “The directors happen to be great fans of Japanese animation, so there’s some influence there,” he noted.
Narratively, Spencer described the picture as “gutsy,” “character-driven” and “heartfelt.” “It’s kind of gutsy to tell a completely different tale, one that’s never been told before, and have it deal with emotions and issues that are very much problems in today’s world, yet put it in an environment that feels very timeless in some ways,” he observed. DeBlois elaborated by talking about the story’s emphasis on the importance of family. Lilo, he pointed out, is a child who’s just lost her parents and is troubled by a lot of issues, and Stitch a trouble-making creature who just intends to use her for protection until he can escape his pursuers, but their bonding changes them both. “The idea is that [Stitch] comes in to accelerate [the family’s] demise, and his short exposure to the idea of family, and to that kind of caring and that kind of forgiveness is what transforms him–so that by the time he realizes what it’s all about, it’s nearly too late–he’s destroyed the family, yet he’s the only one who can rebuild it. Two unlikely characters come together, and they transform each other’s lives in ways they couldn’t have seen coming.”
In the end, DeBlois explained that he and Sanders consider “Lilo & Stitch” a personal film. “For better or worse, what you see on the screen is a pure interpretation of what we had written on the page,” he said. Many parents in search of good summer family entertainment will find it very much for the better.