As a kid—and often still as an adult—I always identified with the music-loving, fish-whispering, button-pushing young hero Lilo Pelekai. I made friends out of scraps of material, annoyed my older sister, and had a really obnoxious dog to keep me company. As we come upon the twenty-year anniversary of the beloved Disney classic Lilo & Stitch, it’s worth looking back on what makes Lilo so endearing, and how she paved the way for more outspoken, unconventional female protagonists. Beyond being a delightfully morbid and creative outcast, Lilo is resilient, determined, and loyal, showing audiences young and old that we deserve to be loved because of—not in spite of—the things that make us special.
First off, nobody can deny that Lilo has a huge heart. She dances through life with the kind of wonder that children possess and adults envy, seeing the beauty in every bikini-clad tourist at the beach and making wishes on falling stars. She loves fiercely and cares deeply, which we can see through her relationship with her older sister Nani, and her continuous attempts to connect with the “friends” that ostracize her. At the end of the day, Lilo just wants to hula, play dolls, and rock out to Elvis with the people she cares about.
However, like any good character, Lilo also has some unfavorable characteristics. She’s angry and impulsive, having a tendency to bite first and ask questions later. Her frustration with her normally comes from feeling misunderstood, and often points to her intense loneliness and desire to feel connected with others while grieving the loss of her parents with her. This duality is perhaps best shown in her first scene in the movie when one minute she’s hand-delivering a fish a peanut butter sandwich, and the next she’s punching Mertle in the face at hula practice. Like any kid working to figure themselves out, Lilo struggles to reconcile all the different parts of herself. She desperately wants to fit in with her peers but refuses to change who she is in order to do so.
For these reasons, it makes sense that the angel she wishes for comes in the form of a six-limbed alien tyrant with a rage problem. She names him Stitch, and so she begins the most bizarre and adorable buddy comedy you’ve ever seen. Two hot-heads with abandonment issues, Lilo and Stitch both have a tendency to make things worse even when they have the best intentions. For example, as Nani frantically job hunts around the island, Lilo tries to teach Stitch how to be a model citizen, and the pair leaves a small path of destruction in their wake. They demolish fruit stands, scare old ladies, and wreak havoc at the beach.
Even as she makes a mess, by watching Lilo attempt to integrate Stitch into society, we see her belief in the good and desire to help others. We can also see a young girl wise beyond her years, as Lilo and Nani struggle to keep their tiny family together while well-meaning social worker Cobra Bubbles threatens to separate them. At first, Stitch only sticks with Lilo to avoid capture by his fellow aliens, literally using her as a human shield. However, as the pair continues to grow their friendship, they both find the sense of belonging they’ve been yearning for and learn that, sometimes, the people you love stick around.
Finally, much like Stitch, Lilo is an undeniable weirdo—a term I use only with the utmost respect. She practices pickle jar voodoo and believes that Pudge the fish controls the weather, taking the doe-eyed Disney-girl mold set out for her and crushing it in a meaty, clenched fist. In the years since Lilo & StitchDisney has further embraced the power of unpolished and headstrong girls, from brave‘s underrated Merida to Moana. While these characters are far from perfect, they are independent, complex, and like Lilo, dance to the beat of their own drum. Most importantly, they are also kind-hearted, even if sometimes that heart is hiding behind a steely exterior. By allowing these girls to be messy and multidimensional, we get a new generation of characters that show kids that it’s okay to be different.
As we all know, not all media ages well. However, even after twenty years, Lilo & Stitch endures the test of time. This movie serves as a great exploration of grief and friendship, telling a complicated and beautiful story through the eyes of an equally complicated and beautiful young protagonist. By telling her Lilo’s story in all her wacky, elvis-loving glory, the filmmakers showed audiences that when you find the right people, you’ll never have to doubt that you belong.