14 March 2013

DISNEY SEQUELS: THE STITCHING HOUR

First off, what the hell kind of title is Stitch! The Movie, anyway? If Chris Sanders's long-gestating creation, the mayhem-inducing and thoroughly sweet alien monster Stitch was just a small side character rather than one-half of the title and co-protagonist to Lilo & Stitch, then we'd have something. But this is no more Stitch! The Movie than the earlier picture was: it possesses Stitch and Lilo in approximately the exact same balance and doing largely the same things as before. But Disney had to call it something, and Pilot Episode for an Upcoming TV Series That We're Shamelessly Going to Make You Pay for Separately is a lot of words for a DVD spine.

Stitch! takes place a vaguely-defined gap of time following the 2002 movie, one of the few financial and critical bright spots for Disney animation in the 2010s; a couple of months maybe, no more. And here we find that the situation promised by the end of the first picture has largely come to pass: Hawai'ian pre-teen Lilo (Daveigh Chase) and her alien best friend Stitch (Sanders) are living happily with an ad hoc family including Lilo's big sister Nani (Tia Carrere), the alien mad scientist who invented Stitch, Jumba (David Ogden Stiers), and his lackey Pleakley (Kevin McDonald). Everybody's happy except for Stitch, who wants to find a way to fit into the big society around him, though this quest is made unnaturally difficult because of his natural tendency to break things.

The complicating incident grinds along in a way that is unmistakably that of a TV pilot, as nearly everything that happens for the film's thankfully short running time (just a hair over 60 minutes, including the credits) is transparently either setting up characters or a situation that won't be resolved. Briefly: Jumba's old partner, space-rodent Dr. Jacques von Hamsterviel (Jeff Bennett), is attempting to steal a container with Jumba's 625 failed genetic experiments in condensed form - Stitch being #626, the first one controllable enough to be effectively weaponised, though Hamsterviel is primarily interested in creating chaos just to be evil, and out-of-control monsters aren't necessarily a downside. A wandering, back-and-forth plot with almost no dramatic stakes that remain constant from one scene to the next follows, by the end of which Hamsterviel is in prison and the whole cast of characters is back where they started, except that 623 of the experiments have been scattered throughout the islands, and it will only take a bit of water to activate them all. Water being something that there's a lot of in tropical islands, from all directions. Thus do Lilo and Stitch set themselves to the task of rounding up the missing critters before too much damage is done (the degree to which this feels, in the basic outline, like a shockingly overt rip-off of the Pokémon franchise is brazen, even for Disney); one does not assume that Disney actually had in mind a 623-episode TV series to document that process, and indeed Lilo & Stitch: The Series only ended up hitting the standard children's television marker of 65 episodes before wrapping up. But I am sad to say, we'll have a chance to talk about that later.

Simply put, there's not that much to talk about with Stitch! The Movie. Functionally, it's identical to The Return of Jafar, in that it's a stand-alone narrative whose conclusion announces in the most desperate, hectoring tones, "Hey everybody, the story isn't over yet! Watch our show!", except that where TROJ is actually, genuinely self-contained, Stitch! never really has a clear-cut situation that needs to be resolved. Jumba gets kidnapped but then he's saved; Lilo and Stitch let Experiment #221 out, and then he has to be caught; Lilo and Stitch are captured by Hamsterviel, and then they escape. Typing it out like that, it suddenly springs into focus: Stitch! is basically just three episodes invisibly joined together to form one overarching story. Except, it doesn't "feel" like three episodes; not the way that TROJ, with its obvious act breaks, did. Besides, TROJ was still a more unified narrative with two cliffhangers at the points the episodes would have ended. Stitch! keeps wrapping its conflicts up, and never feels like it's going anywhere, as a result.

The resulting film, or film-surrogate, is generally tedious, though admittedly, not as bad as it could be in that respect. Lilo & Stitch itself didn't have all that driving of a narrative, after all; it was a story of a girl and her dog, with the appeal coming from the abnormal nature of that girl and that dog, as filtered through Sanders and co-creator Dean DeBlois. Stitch! lacks either of those men in a creative capacity (though Sanders's voice acting was essential - he is to this day the only person to ever voice Stitch, impressive considering what I don't suppose is a terribly friendly relationship between him and Disney in the aftermath of the American Dog/Bolt affair), and it shows in a distinctly broad, anxious story that relies very heavily on TV animation tropes and obvious gags, without the bent, somewhat dark creativity that Sanders brought to the fore. E.g. Hamsterviel is a fun character, with an exceptionally delightful design-

-but it's straight out the Writing Kids' Shows for Dummies handbook to have him talk with an accent that throws a couple of hints of German and Chinese at what is, temperamentally and aurally, a carbon copy of the taunting Frenchman from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I am presently agnostic on the question of whether it makes it more or less tacky to do this in the knowledge that the film's target audience is unlikely to have actually seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The point I was actually trying to make, though, was that Lilo & Stitch was ultimately pushed forward by two things: comic tone and characters. And where the first of those is not present in Stitch! at all, the latter in fact makes it through intact. It helps, of course, that nearly the entire vocal cast returned (the exception: minor character David, Nani's boyfriend, presently voiced by Dee Bradley Baker), lending an unprecedented degree of continuity in the way the characters were all played. But the basic sweetness of the character relationships laid out in the first movie are brought forward in an entirely convincing way that the sort of manic chase-dominated narrative would not have suggested was a possibility.

So at the very least, while it's a bit aimless and frustrating as a story, it's mostly satisfying as a chance to hang out with the characters we presumably already love - certainly, Stitch! doesn't make even a cursory attempt to capture your interest if you didn't already like the first movie, trading on brand loyalty as extensively as any of the DisneyToon films ever had.

It's a bit rockier as far as the animation goes. Three different companies, none of them actually owned by Disney, were involved in the creation of Stitch!, and the wild variations in quality throughout just 60 minutes are quite astounding. There are shots with delicate lighting effects that crop up just a cut or two away from the flattest, cheapest-looking drawing that a harried TV schedule could come up with. A few moments are virtually indistinguishable from Lilo & Stitch itself, save for a lower framerate; mostly, though, there's a distinct stiffness to the movement, and occasionally the feeling that not everybody is one the same plane. And for some reason, there's a pervasive problem with Lilo in profile; she faces directly offscreen several times, and every single time it's the same unspeakably hideous, extravagantly off-model rendering of a character who, admittedly, wasn't designed to be seen at such a flat angle.



Such issues are an exception, more than the rule, though Stitch! is still, unabashedly, television animation; it just so happens to be television animation adapted from a feature which was already exceptionally soft and light on detail for a Disney production, helping matters.

Having spent this much time thinking about Stitch!, it's kind of terrifying to me to realise that I basically don't have an opinion on it. It's such a damn irrelevancy; nice to see the characters again, and they even mostly resemble the characters from the original, which is a huge plus given the native state of many of these Disney sequels; on the other hand, nothing happens, and even at an hour and a few seconds, it's deathly boring. But then, it was crass and functionary to a degree rare even for a DisneyToons product, and it shouldn't be surprising that it comes from a place of virtually no real inspiration. This much I can confidently say: it didn't make even remotely interested in watching the same kind of plot slosh out for 65 half-hours, and thus I might say that it failed in its single important goal, though I also don't guess that Disney's television wing was busy hunting for thirtysomething men to watch their programming, having by this point long given up even the most marginal pretense to artistry. Even by the standards of this marathon, Stitch! isn't a movie; it's a product.

6 comments:

Chris D said...

I can testify that the TV series does indeed play out exactly like the movie every week, although being compressed into 22 minutes helped keep it lively. I'm young enough that I was actually in the right demographic to watch the show when it aired, and it was one of the better products the Disney Channel ever aired, compared to the ghastliness of eg the Buzz Lightyear show. "Pokemon with the Lilo and Stitch characters" is exactly right, but the sense of character continuity from the movie and the manic energy of the experiments made for more than adequate children's fare.

Certainly, it was much, much better than Lilo & Sitch 2: Stitch Has A Glitch. Christ, talk about turning Lilo & Stitch into a calculated commercial entity - you haven't seen anything yet.

groudon202 said...

Coming from someone who ADORED Lilo and Stitch, in 2002 and now, what surprises me is just how many adults continue to follow the TV series. It is a depressing thought, yes, but having seen it myself (both as a kid on Saturday mornings and more recently) I can say, like Chris D above me, that it is worth it just to hang out with the characters. Even in the financial difficulty of Disney in the early 2000's, this show was hugely popular (well, it did air on THE Disney Channel, as opposed to side channels, and still does so in the mornings today).

Though I've never seen it from start to end in one, the best parts in Stitch! The Movie are those that have nothing to do with the plot itself, or the let's-set-up-a-tv-series wandering events that tries to masquerade as a plot. Both those comical and less so - though nowhere near as effective as in the 2002 film, that scene where Lio and Stitch are locked up beside each other (the one framed a little above) does get me a little. Only a little, mind - there's no doubt that they're gonna get out of it.

Though most of the character designs remain close, there is something that is wrong with Stitch. He seems... taller? Older? Less rounded, I think, and that it very surprising considering how more rounded Nani is, and how these DTV cheapquels normally make their chaarcters more rounded and "easier" to animate. Then again, a part of me knows that Stitch, once he changed from a monster to someone with a family (something I still prefer rewatching to watching an episode of The Series I have not yet seen), would settle into "fixed" territory.

Tim said...

My feelings on this one are still unresolved, but I feel like I'm right where you two are: I like hanging out with the characters, don't much care for what the characters are obliged to do. I appreciate the forewarning that the "actual" sequel is going to be a much more negative experience than this one. And that's a good observation on the Stitch character design that I'd totally missed.

Brian said...

For the first time, I am genuinely at least somewhat interested in watching one of these Disney DTV's for a non-mocking purpose.

I'd love to spend more time with Lilo and Stitch. Wish the original film would get the "Disney Masterpiece" type treatment, especially given some of the other films that do.

groudon202 said...

Tim, I'll say this; looking at the various screenshots of Stitch himself throughout, it's hard to believe that he could be in the EXACT same posture that he was when he was reading that book in the forest in the first movie.

And as for Stitch Has A Glitch, I will say it's visual look is worth a look - as close to the original as possible, with backgrounds that ALMOST resemble the original's watercolour backgrounds. In Stitch!, the colour palette is a simplified television look, but the next one is softer and like the original (it was planned for a theatrical release, but was cancelled after the lackluster performance of Jungle Book 2, I hear. It does mean we get a visually superior experience to this, anyway.)

Caleb Wimble said...

"the degree to which this feels, in the basic outline, like a shockingly overt rip-off of the Pokémon franchise is brazen, even for Disney"

Hate to sound the pedant, but to be fair the gotta-catch-em-all "mon" genre (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MonsSeries) is far older than Nintendo's most famous iteration, dating at least back to Shin Megami Tensei a decade earlier or even the 19th century Obake Karuta. There are dozens if not hundreds of Japanese franchises following the same formula, many of which (including SMT) besides Pokémon have been popular Stateside for quite some time - Digimon, Monster Rancher, and Shaman King, for instance.

Though, to be fair again to your statement, Lilo and Stitch: The Series is one of the few straightforward American entries to this genre.