'Lilo & Stitch' creators fall for Hawai'i's 'ohana
By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Editor
|Disney's "Lilo & Stitch" features a lonely Hawaiian girl who adopts an alien dog and introduces him to the spirit of 'ohana.
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And now the world is destined to be introduced to the notion of 'ohana when the film, expected to be Disney's big summer release, premieres June 21. Look and you'll find elements of Hanapepe, Hanalei, Napali and the Kilauea lighthouse, among other Hawai'i locations.
The film centers on Lilo (Daveigh Chase), a lonely Hawaiian girl who adopts a stranded alien dog from space, gives him the name Stitch and introduces him to the concept of family. She lives with her older sister/guardian, Nani (voiced by Tia Carrere); among other characters is David Kawena (Jason Scott Lee), a surfer type.
Writer-directors Chris Sanders, 40, and Dean DeBlois, 31, recall how Kaua'i replaced Kansas.
"Chris had a map (of Hawai'i) on the wall when we were still working on the story," DeBlois said. "Chris kept thinking that these small towns on Kaua'i he visited; they were perfect in size, with obvious beauty and had the spirit of 'ohana."
" 'Ohana was not part of the original script," said Clark Spencer, 39, who is making his debut as producer with "Lilo."
"On a research trip (in Hawai'i), everybody spoke of 'ohana. For Stitch and his transformation, what would be better than 'ohana? He comes to know what it means to have family. It struck a chord and really resonates in a wonderful way. It will be great for cultures outside of the USA who might not have heard about it."
Sanders is forever grateful to a tour guide he refers to only as Francis, "who knew everybody everywhere we went on Kaua'i, which made me realize what a tight-knit community Hawai'i was," he said.
"The idea was that there were broader implications of 'ohana; that Stitch, the ultimate orphan with no parents, would come to be part of an 'ohana. We rewrote our entire film."
DeBlois said that Stitch was all about being an isolated sort, from a broken family. "The great thing about 'ohana is that family is not defined by parents or uncles. It can be a whole community," he said. "It works well with Stitch as part of a nonconventional family. It's an idea that's accepted, encouraged and celebrated."
The movie will be unusual because Sanders and DeBlois, who earlier collaborated on Disney's "Mulan," tweaked some of the Disney formula.
"Lilo & Stitch" bucks tradition in two ways: The tale begins with a shipwrecked Stitch, an alien from space who lands on Kaua'i, who starts off "bad" and ends up "good." The film also revives a bygone watercolor animation style (instead of using mostly computer-generated graphics). The technique was last used in "Dumbo." It is being used to capture the lush, organic and luminous flavor of the Islands.
"It originally was a story pitch, a children's book," said Sanders, of the screenplay he co-wrote and co-directed with DeBlois (Sanders also provided the voice of Stitch). "But when you talk about aliens, people get in their own minds a particular image; so we had to create illustrations as kind of a visual blueprint of where we would be going."
In the original version, Stitch, a misfit dog resulting from a genetic experiment, originally was to crash-land from space into a forest, where he would be ostracized by woodland creatures and forced to live life on his own in rural Kansas.
"Inherent in animated stories is the fact that heroes and villains are usually black and white; heroes win, villains die," said Sanders of formulaic fantasy tales. "But heroes are hard for normal people to aspire to; they're too good. This film begins with the capture of a villain, the would-be hero; every character has good and bad qualities; the bad aspire to be good, but there are frailties.
Sanders, a Disney animator since 1987, counts among his credits storyboarded sequences for "Beauty and the Beast."
DeBlois helped mold and shape "Lilo," with both creators storyboarding their screenplay together instead of having a story team work on it. Thus, they said, the vision and nuances of their story remained constant.
"Lilo" is the second animated film to be produced at the Walt Disney Animation facility in Florida; most features are produced in Burbank, Calif.
"Hawai'i works for the film," said Spencer, a 12-year Disney veteran who most recently served as senior vice president and general manager of Florida Disney operations. He said the co-writers/directors "made every effort to authenticate local elements, from hula to surfing to pronunciation of Hawaiian words.
"We worked with a former Ho-nolulu hula teacher, Mark Keali'i Ho'omalu, who now lives in Oakland, and through him and various sources, we were able to (film) real hula dancers and work out an original Hawaiian chant. Plus, we got a choir from Kamehameha Schools to sing 'He Mele No Lilo.' "
Because Sanders was an Elvis Presley fan, the movie incorporates The King's music. "In creating Lilo's character," Sanders said, "we have her as a devotee of records, gyrating to Elvis with an old-fashioned record player instead of CDs. Elvis is the soundtrack of her life."
DeBlois said that during casting, it was a priority to include some Hawai'i voices "to give a local spin on the dialogue." Carrere was signed first; it was she who suggested Lee. "What was great was the fact that with both Tia and Jason, we could write dialogue and pass on to them at the recording session, which they could deliver in a relaxed manner, and make suggestions, too, on accuracy."