Stitch in Time?

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A little girl and a teddy-bear-size monster face two big challenges. One is for the girl (Lilo) to tame her angry new pet from outer space (Stitch) while persuading a social worker to let her stay with her big sister. The other is that the Disney movie they are in, Lilo & Stitch, must make a bundle — or Hollywood could hear a death knell for the traditional animated feature. Disney's beleaguered boss, Michael Eisner, has to hope there is still profit in the hand-drawn cartoons that made Disney's name and fortune but have faded as computer-generated (CG) films have flourished.

Animators draw figures; movie execs read them. So consider these numbers, just from Disney product. The studio's four CG features (Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc.), produced by John Lasseter and his cyber-Merlins at Pixar, earned an average of $214 million; the last two averaged $250 million. As for Disney's once mighty traditional animated films, the last four (Mulan, Tarzan, The Emperor's New Groove and Atlantis: The Lost Empire) grossed, on average, just $116 million, and the last two didn't make it to $90 million. Pixar films were originally meant to supplement Disney's basic animation menu; instead they have supplanted it. The story is the same at DreamWorks. The CG Shrek scared up $267 million, while the traditional Road to El Dorado cadged a paltry $51 million.


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Lilo & Stitch could bring good news to Disney and its Old Guard animators. It's a bright, engaging bauble with half a dozen Elvis Presley songs for Mom and Dad, and just enough sass — Stitch sticks his tongue into his nose and eats his snot — to keep the tweeners giggling. Lilo (voiced by Daveigh Chase) gives the usual lonely-but-superior Disney heroine a twist: she is a brat who has anger issues. And far from trying to save China or morph from mermaid to human, this Hawaiian handful has no goal loftier than the status quo — to keep living with her frazzled sister Nani (Tia Carrere).

Enter Stitch, a killing machine from the planet Turo. An unholy mix of E.T. and the Zuni fetish doll that scared the wits out of Karen Black in the never-to-be-forgotten TV movie Trilogy of Terror, Stitch was created by a mad scientist — or, as he prefers to be known, an "evil genius"--who gave the creature only one instinct: "to destroy everything it touches." Stitch escapes to Earth, a primitive planet that the Turans have allowed to exist as a "protected wildlife preserve to repopulate the mosquito." Stitch wanders into a dog pound and is adopted by the desperately needy Lilo; she figures "he used to be a collie before he got ran over." Will Lilo, herself something of a little monster, be able to turn this space Satan into a nicely domesticated Hawaiian — a ukul-alien? It's Disney Darwinism: survival of the cutest.

Writer-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois give the film a lush, pastel look and rounded, black-eyed characters closer to Smurfs than to the keenly defined types of most Disney cartoons. They also borrow roughly from Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki, who in My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service plopped adorable kids into magical situations. (In tribute, the film has Nani open a business called Kiki's Coffee House.) But after a lag in the early sister scenes, Lilo reveals its own very American verve and wit, along with a smart story sense that marks the best animated features, traditional or computerized. When Stitch makes his appearance in a Vegas-Elvis silver sequined outfit, the 'plexes should erupt in delighted laughter.

Traditional animation has already seen a tentative revival with DreamWorks' Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Lilo & Stitch is lighter, bouncier, loads more fun. So let's predict that this new Disney film will be an old-fashioned, hand-drawn hit. If traditional animators are not to be the modern equivalents of monks creating illuminated manuscripts — craftsmen in a world whose technology made their skills anachronistic — it had better be.