Poi Dog Pondering

A monster pooch descends upon Hawaii in Lilo & Stitch

Somewhere in the world outside the Magic Kingdom are bored people. Blissfully unaware of the suits who select the multiplex fodder they'll be mentally munching, these people decide that Lilo & Stitch is worth a small chunk of their hard-earned. They buy tickets, relax their respective keisters -- and discover a charming and funny movie, wherein a pug-nosed and pugnacious little Hawaiian girl bearing the boy's name of Lilo (voiced by Daveigh Chase) and her barely adult sister and guardian, Nani (Tia Carrere), accidentally adopt a massively destructive galactic mutant named Experiment 626 (codirector Christopher Michael Sanders), which they assume to be a weird dog, awarding it the unlikely moniker of Stitch. As the sisters' parentless home is threatened by a determined social worker named Cobra Bubbles (Ving Rhames) and Stitch is hunted by his literally four-eyed alien maker, Jumba Jookiba (David Ogden Stiers), the audience is treated to copious giggles and insistent messages about the importance of family.

Part manic Beavis, part obnoxious Shrek, not at all squishy E.T., and heir apparent to the Tasmanian Devil, this Stitch creature is sure to be a hit with fans of pointless devastation. Happily, the fiendish "dog" is also at the center of a terrific tropical romp, sharing with Lilo a vastly creative territory seemingly untainted by studio megabucks or manipulative schmaltz. These two characters are simply the latest entries in the jam-packed cinema of outsiders; their funky misadventures should surprise tech-heads who mistakenly believe that 2-D animation is running out of gas. The movie rolls out grandly.

With cowriter and director Dean DeBlois, Sanders ransacks popular culture to deliver a thoroughly modern fairy tale. Although there are loose associations to The Ugly Duckling (which becomes Stitch's bible), Lilo & Stitch is more concerned with blazing new ground than rehashing the overly familiar. Evidence abounds in the project's sheer candor, as Lilo tells local hunk David (Jason Scott Lee) that her sister appreciates his butt and Nani flounces about in clothes lifted from her tiny sister's wardrobe. The romance of Ariel and Belle isn't the point here, nor is the hard-won independence of Pocahontas or Mulan. These Hawaiian heroines are part of a new tradition based on the grit of the here and now, not some luminous, far-off, storybook scenario.

There's genuine pathos to the familial squabbles, yet a scintillating supporting cast keeps the film's tender moments from becoming too moody. Looking like an antler-bedecked Kamino cloner from Star Wars Episode II -- indeed, many of these groovy space creatures and sets verge perilously upon copyright infringement -- Grand Council Woman (Zoe Caldwell) delivers the icy authoritarianism of The Weakest Link's Anne Robinson. The standout is her whipping boy, and Jumba's hapless sidekick, Pleakley (Kevin McDonald), a one-eyed interstellar dong who enjoys cross-dressing and believes Earth to be a wildlife preserve for mosquitoes.

As if it weren't already weird enough, Lilo & Stitch also wears its Elvis fetish with pride. Lilo is mad for the King, who keeps her island home from becoming just a blue Hawaii. Presley's songs are littered through the movie to weird but amusing effect, but it's his iconic presence as a "model citizen" that strikes the deepest nerve. When the chuckles subside, this slyly packaged show is all about integrity, identity, and community -- the goals of anyone who's all shook up.

 
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