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Celebrating 20 years of 'Lilo & Stitch' in Hawaiʻi with creator Chris Sanders

"Lilo & Stitch"
Courtesy Disney
"Lilo & Stitch"

Twenty years ago, Disney released “Lilo & Stitch," the first feature-length animated movie set in Hawaiʻi. It tells the story of a 6-year-old Hawaiian girl who invites an extraterrestrial creature named Stitch into her ʻohana.

The Conversation reflected on the legacy of the film with Stitch creator Chris Sanders. Not only did Sanders co-write and co-direct the movie, but he was also the voice of the blue alien. His credits include several other animated films including “The Lion King” and “Mulan,” and he directed “How to Train Your Dragon.”

Read excerpts of his interview below and take a listen to this extended interview with Sanders.

Extended interview with "Lilo & Stitch" co-creator Chris Sanders
The Conversation - July 12, 2022

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On the role of ʻohana in "Lilo & Stitch"

CHRIS SANDERS: In the beginning, the genesis of “Lilo & Stitch” was partially that I wanted to create a film around the idea of a villain becoming a hero. We spend a lot of time killing villains at the end of Disney films. And this time, I thought, "Let's change that up. I want a villain that becomes the hero." ... We were looking at this film, and we were seeing this character change from bad to good, but we didn't have a reason. He was changing from bad to good pretty much just because it was our plan like, see, he became good. And after the first screening, I was the one that said, "We don't have the engine yet. We have all these things but we need the engine. We need the reason that he becomes good." And we realized that Stitch has a family that loves him, and that was the thing that would change him. The idea of ʻohana was the perfect thing to place around this character. And that would be the thing that would change him, that would change the course of his life. We didn't know originally, but by complete accident, I put Stitch in the one place that had the best, most beautiful interpretation of family ever.

Characters Nani (voiced by Tia Carrere) and Lilo (Daveigh Chase) in "Lilo & Stitch."
Courtesy Disney
Characters Nani (voiced by Tia Carrere) and Lilo (Daveigh Chase) in "Lilo & Stitch."

On the significance of Hawaiʻi to the 2002 film

SANDERS: Originally, I was thinking maybe rural Kansas or something… and as I was working on "Lilo and Stitch," developing it and getting ready to pitch the idea, I looked up at my wall, and I had a map of Hawaiʻi because I had recently visited. And it took me a while, a few hours. And suddenly I thought, "Wait a minute, that's a place that has an intimacy. And why wouldn't I just set it there as a story?" There was something so magical about it. I was kind of resistant to it — even just myself, I was like, "Can I do that?" I thought, "Yeah, why not? Why not set this in Hawaiʻi?" And the moment I did, some of those light bulbs started to come on.

On learning from Hawaiʻi's community and casting local actors such as Jason Scott Lee and Tia Carrere

SANDERS: When it came to the music, the culture, and the language, we cast as many people as we could that knew what they were doing. A good example would be the kumu hula. He staged the dance sequences that we videotaped and gave to the animators because we understood that this is something that you've got to get right. You do not mess around with this. It's not my culture, but I'm in charge of getting it right. So Mark Kealiʻi Hoʻomalu was our kumu hula. He told us everything we needed to know about everything. And he was one of those people that gave us more than we ever could have hoped for — culturally, language-wise, just stories, everything. We also partnered with Kamehameha Schools. And their choir is the choir that sings in the movie, for example. So that was just for us an exercise in humility and letting people who know what they're doing help us.

Courtesy Disney

SANDERS: We found as many people that we could that were from Hawaiʻi. The only one that we struggled with was the character of Lilo. We had casting directors scour Hawaiʻi. At that time, we couldn't find the right voice. And that was a very, very difficult voice to cast — even here on the mainland… And one day this girl came in, and her name was Daveigh Chase. She sat at the microphone, and she started doing her thing. Dean [DeBlois, the other co-director] and I looked at each other, and we knew we had found her. So that was the only voice that we really wished we could have cast from Hawaiʻi, and we gave it a shot. It wasn't in the cards at that time.

On becoming the voice for Stitch

SANDERS: We didn't want someone famous for Stitch because originally the concept was that he wouldn't speak at all. He might make a few little noises like growls and stuff, but he would never speak. As we worked on the film, it became obvious that he would have to talk. As we pitched the early storyboards, I would just give that character that voice. It's a voice that I would use to call people on the phone and annoy them. It was just this dumb voice I used from time to time when it felt right. But eventually, we're talking about Stitch's voice and Dean said, "Well, why don't we just use yours? You're not famous, and you're not going to cause trouble." Because the concern on Dean and my part was that if we did hire Robert Redford or Robin Williams — and they only had 15 lines and even those lines were two words at a time — that there might be some trouble that would develop. It would be very easy to imagine that eventually the studio would come around and say, “Well, if you got Robin Williams or Robert Redford, why don't you give them a bigger role.” And that would be a disaster, because that would mean that we were moving the film and pointing it in the wrong direction, just to placate somebody. We thought, "Let's ensure that we'd never even have to have that discussion by putting somebody like me in that role." And nobody wants more of me. So it was perfect.

On the legacy of "Lilo & Stitch"

SANDERS: I'm so proud of it. And, you know, we were busy doing certain things. You're so busy making this film and getting all the story problems worked out that you don't necessarily think about the larger impact that it might have. One of the wonderful things about something like "Lilo & Stitch," making a movie, is that it endures. It has this staying power. Over the years, more and more people see it for the first time. And over the years, both Dean and I have heard from people who have been touched by this film in various ways, and it has really meant something to them. And that's just absolutely so exciting.

"Lilo & Stitch" remains available to watch on Disney+. A live-action adaptation is reportedly in development, but Sanders told HPR he's not really involved in it. This interview aired on The Conversation on July 12, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Russell Subiono is the executive producer of The Conversation and host of HPR's This Is Our Hawaiʻi podcast. Born in Honolulu and raised on Hawaiʻi Island, he’s spent the last decade working in local film, television and radio. Contact him at talkback@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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