It’s hard to believe that Lilo and Stitch is not much younger than I am, but it is, somewhat bizarrely, indeed true. The modern classic cartoon has been around for 20 years, and although it undoubtedly has its place as a fun-loving and lighthearted children’s film, I’m of the belief that it carries an extra depth that has helped it stand the test of time.
Set in Hawaii and centring around a young girl who makes unlikely friends with an alien, the 2002 movie came right around the turning point of Disney – and kids movies in general – towards a more inclusive and deep agenda for its viewers. The early 2000s were a time when filmmakers began to trust their audiences more than they ever had before, offering more substantive takes and character depth in content for children.
Lilo and Stitch arrived shortly after the release of Monsters, Inc. and right before Finding Nemo, two of the other “nostalgia-films” of the era that focus on themes of found family. Undoubtedly crucial to this wave of animated exploration, there remains one thing particularly special about Lilo and Stitch: its representation of sisterhood.
Most people who have seen the film can recall that the plot involves two sisters—Lilo, the child and titular character, and her older sister Nani, who serves as her main caregiver after their parents passed away before the start of the film. This is, to me, the strongest relationship in the plot.
When you read between the lines and pay more attention to the minor progressions of the story, one aspect instantly noticeably is the fight that Nani engages in to keep Lilo in her care and, more importantly, to keep their family unit together. They have to talk to a social worker (Cobra Bubbles), who visits their home to inspect whether or not Nani is fit to care for Lilo. She works as a waitress to support their life and does everything in her power to keep Lilo from being placed in foster care in what is a stark reminder of a socio-economic society that often bypasses Disney.
This also brings in an exploration of the foster care system in America, and the lacking nature of support through social structures for families and children who need them—especially Indigenous people and communities like that of Hawaii.
One of the reasons why the sister relationship is so focal and so strong in the plot is because it is the main familial and supportive relationship there is. There’s a tragedy that looms behind their family – that of their parents’ passing – and, therefore, it puts their sisterhood in a different place. They are each other’s entire family unit.
As someone who has a younger sister, I can attest that this movie does sisterhood real justice, simply because I see in their bond a mirror of how so many people—myself included—would lean on their sisters, and let their sisters lean on them in a unique and caring bond in times of loneliness and crisis.
One thing I don’t think people realise about Lilo and Stitch is that Nani is only 19 years old in the film. She’s basically a child herself, trying to do everything she can to care for Lilo like she’s her own because, in a way, she is.
Lilo and Stitch tells a more nuanced story than it might lead you to expect at first glance, and in doing so, it represents sisterhood astonishingly well. It’s no wonder why a film like this one has managed to stand the test of time, even after two whole decades.