'Lilo' captures Hawai'i spirit in an appealing way
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
|Grandmother Patsy Kim, Tia Carrere (voice of Nani), grandmother Rae Duhinio and Carrere's mom Audrey Kim were at the red-carpet Hawai'i premiere of "Lilo & Stitch."
Photos by Gregory Yamamoto The Honolulu Advertiser
It's a simple and, in the context of the film, redemptive statement. And it was crafted with great care by co-writers and co-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois.
"Because we're not from Hawai'i, I didn't want to try and directly translate what 'ohana means," Sanders said. "So Lilo says first that 'ohana means family, and then she says what family means for them nobody gets left behind."
Basically, A equals B, B equals C, but A doesn't necessarily equal C. For Sanders and DeBlois, such rhetorical manipulation is an acknowledgment of the complexities of extracting culturally specific themes for mass consumption.
Based on audience reactions at the film's Honolulu sneak preview on Tuesday, "Lilo & Stitch" pulls off the difficult task of representing local sensibilities in ways that are universally appealing. Residents and out-of-towners alike chuckled at images of bumbling tourists and at ethnic side characters who tiptoe deftly on the line between type and stereotype (such as Mrs. Hasegawa, the tiny Japanese general-store owner).
"We lived in constant worry that we might get something wrong, or that we'd misrepresent the spirit of what we were trying to capture," Sanders said.
It wasn't supposed to be that stressful.
"When the story was first pitched, Stitch was going to be a forest creature," DeBlois explained. "Then it was suggested that he be put into the human world and the original idea was that he'd be an alien that lands in Kansas."
After working together on the animated movie "Mulan," which required extensive research into Chinese history and culture, DeBlois and Sanders looked forward to something closer to home.
"Then I went to Hawai'i and I knew that that's where the story had to take place," Sanders said.
Said DeBlois: "Once we decided on Hawai'i, it raised the whole issue of representing another culture. We knew that we'd have to do a lot of research to try and understand Hawaiian values and lifestyle."
|Chris Sanders (writer, director and voice of Stitch) and Dean DeBlois (writer and director) had the difficult task of portraying island culture and the notion of 'ohana in ways that are universally appealing.|
In the movie, Stitch is an alien experiment designed to wreak havoc wherever he goes. He escapes to Earth where he's adopted by Lilo, a lonely girl being cared for by her older sister.
"For this project, Stitch was the most important thing," Sanders said. "When we found out about 'ohana, it put everything on track."
Sanders said he and DeBlois relied heavily on Mark Keali'i Ho'omalu, the kumu hula who co-wrote two songs for the film, and Hawai'i-reared actors Tia Carrere and Jason Scott Lee for guidance in things Hawaiian.
Recognizing the need for Hawai'i to sound like Hawai'i, the directors let Carrere and Lee work in pidgin inflections and ad libs wherever they saw fit.
"When we were in Kaua'i, we went to a lot of small towns, and we saw that there was a relaxed way that people interacted and spoke to each other," DeBlois said. "We wanted to capture that without making it incomprehensible to a larger audience."
Carrere, who was an early choice to voice the lead in "Mulan," said she was thrilled to be chosen for the part of Lilo's sister, Nani.
Carrere, who already was committed to the television series "The Relic Hunter," recorded voice-overs for the movie over a span of two years, from locales as far off as Britain and Spain.
Carrere also helped recruit Lee, who had previously acted in the live-action Disney feature "The Jungle Book."
"I had a great relationship with Disney already, so I was glad when they brought me back," Lee said. "I really enjoyed the whole experience, especially the way they allowed Tia and me to explore our characters.
"I think the movie is very realistic, very contemporary," he said. "It's not grass huts and all that corny stuff, but it's not about the commercialization of Waikiki, either. It finds a wise medium."
Thomas Schumacher, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, said "Lilo & Stitch" is an extension of the company's animated tradition.
Over the years, this tradition, now 41 films deep, has sought to expose audiences to various European, Asian and African cultures to varying degrees of success. In some cases, critics have argued, the host culture is represented simply as a visual backdrop for the story, with little consideration given to the spirit and personality of its people.
With "Lilo & Stitch," Schumacher said, the culture drives the story.
"Hawai'i put the story in a colorful, beautiful but also emotional context," he said. "People reach out here, and that's what this story is about."
Disney animators had to dig deep in the company archives to find the right look for "Lilo & Stitch."
"The whole idea was to represent the fantastic, lush environment on Kaua'i," said Thomas Schumacher, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation. "But it's also a contemporary story and we wanted to balance that by giving it a storybook quality."
The answer was a return to the watercolor artistry that brought to life such Disney classics as "Dumbo" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."
The only problem was, "It's a very difficult technique and we hadn't done a full-length film that way in 60 years," Schumacher said. "Our artists trained for nine months just to get it right.
"We had to look at what kind of paper was best, how absorbent it was, how it would look photographed for the screen, how to control the wetness..." he said. "It's very complicated."
The artists used referenced original paintings from the 1930s and honed their skills accordingly.
The results seem to justify the effort. Co-writer Chris Sanders' softly drawn characters move naturally in the watercolor environment. Though stylized, Disney's Kaua'i is immediately recognizable with its purple and pink twilights and early morning blues.
"Each of our films has a different look," Schumacher said. "This look was just right for this particular film."