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Lilo & Stitch and the Spirit of Hawaii

How an animated film from Disney captures the beauty and true spirit of Hawaii


Lilo and Stitch

Lilo and Stitch 2002

©2002 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved
Many films have been made in Hawaii, and still others set in Hawaii, but made elsewhere. With few exceptions, however, only a small number of films have been made about Hawaii, and fewer still that actually capture on screen what Hawaii is all about.

It will come as a shock to many that the film that best captures the true spirit of Hawaii and the meaning of 'ohana is an animated motion picture from the Disney Studios called "Lilo & Stitch." Stitch is an alien experiment designed to wreak havoc wherever he goes, who escapes to Earth and gets adopted by a little Hawaiian girl on Kaua'i.

One entity that clearly understood the potential of this film to attract future visitors to Hawaii is the Hawaii Visitor and Convention Bureau, which signed a $1.7 million deal with Disney to promote Hawaii in conjunction with the movie. The potential to attract millions of children (and their parents) at a time when Hawaii tourism continues to suffer in the wake of September 11, 2001 may very well prove to be worth much more than the millions previously spent on tie-in's to such ventures as Baywatch Hawaii.

But what is there about this film that captures so well both the visual beauty of Hawaii as well the spirit of the islands and such complex concepts as the Hawaiian meaning of 'ohana?

Co-writers and co-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois did extensive personal research in making this film. Greatly impressed by the beauty of the islands, and Kauai in particular, the films creators decided that the best way to re-create the island visually was to utilize a technique which had not been used by Disney Animation in over 60 years - watercolor. 

The production team spent weeks in Hawaii studying the geography, buildings, vegetation, and even the way the light falls from the sky at different times of the day. They painted and photographed houses, businesses, mountains, bridges and sea coasts, and incorporated many actual locations into the film. Production designer Paul Felix writes about his experiences in Hawaii in the excellent companion book to the film: "Lilo & Stitch - Collected Stories from the Film's Creators."

Felix writes, "In the small town of Hanapepe, I found all the usual homey details, ranging from rusted-out bridges to homemade mailboxes. In particular, I was interested to see how these details weathered in Kaua'i's unique climate. I took as many pictures as I could but tried, at the same time, just to soak in the general atmosphere, which is hard to reproduce in photographs. I certainly recall being impressed by the saturation of colors and the ever-changing moods of the skies and landscape."

Dean DeBlois writes, "The soft, rounded character designs and organic watercolors relax the imagery and ease the atmosphere, to portray a sense of Lilo's endless summer, childlike perception of her world. We designed her town in such a way that Lilo could get everywhere she wanted to go by means of little paths, quiet back roads, and even a cavernous storm pipe that runs underneath the main street. We had sent time in Hanalei and Hanapepe while on a research trip to Kaua'i, and these beautiful, sleepy little spots became the inspiration for Lilo's town."

Attention to detail is seen in almost every shot. Viewers familiar with Hawaii will notice such landmarks as the bridge to Hanalei, the Kilauea Lighthouse, the Princeville Hotel, the Na Pali Coast, the shave ice stand, green sea turtles and even a poster of Duke Kahanamoku over Lilo's sister Nani's bed.

The Hawaii of "Lilo & Stitch" is not the Hawaii seen in most motion pictures. Lilo and her sister live in a small, rural town. Her sister is struggling to find and keep a job in Hawaii's depressed economy, while still trying to satisfy the demands of the bureaucratic social worker. Many of the characters speak pidgin. The beach and ocean are means to escape after school, work or just a bad day. Tourists are a curiosity for Lilo, who takes their pictures and hangs the photographs on her bedroom wall. What you see in "Lilo & Stitch" is one of the most accurate portrayals of the real Hawaii.

NEXT PAGE - The meaning of 'ohana

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