One stitch at a time The power of rehabilitation in Disney's Lilo and Stitch

Whenever I watch Lilo and Stitch I get that warm fuzzy feeling that emerges from inside, and God only knows how many times I have rewatched that movie. But, that got me thinking: what am I supposed to be understanding? Is Disney brainwashing me with messages secretly engrained in their films? Why are Nani and Lilo the most relatable Disney characters EVER? (honestly that last one is self explanatory)

Well, Disney is definitely trying to tell us something ( I mean, what else is the point of spending billions on film every year).

"What are they telling us?" you may ask. Disney? No way they would never mess with me. I, young and naive, also thought the same thing until I realized ... Stitch is literally supposed to be an "illegal alien." Aside from being an undocumented immigrant, Stitch is also a convicted felon. Through Stitch, Disney aims to target and provide commentary in support of two minority groups: immigrants and criminals.

A Note from the Author on Lilo:

There are two major plot lines in Lilo and Stitch (2002): There is the developing story of Lilo finding her place in society and the story of how Stitch is slowly introduced into normal life, happiness and family through Lilo. Though both are very important aspects of the film, as you read, I urge you to focus on Lilo's role within Stitch's plot line. In this plot, Lilo serves the role of the master rehabilitator and is the catalyst behind Stitch's (rather visual) transformation from evil to good and from an immigrant to a member of her family. Lilo's relationship pulls Stitch out of a life of crime into a meaningful existence.

“The antidote (for bad behavior) they suggest is a 'time in' that forges connection and relationship rather than punishment and isolation. " - Heidi Russell

Stitch as an Immigrant:

It's not all that weird to think of Stitch as an immigrant, anyway. He escapes his original planet Turo because of a scary and unjust political system that exiles him. His entrance into earth was marked with turmoil and strife, as he is chased and tracked down by police (Captain Gantu). He then crash-lands in a giant green ball of fire on to earth. Juxtapose this image with the calm, tropical Hawaii and it is hard not to identify Stitch as an immigrant. This spectacular entrance, along with Stitch's appearance (i.e. having four arms, antennae and back-spikes) is meant to set him apart from everyone else: there is him and then there is literally everyone else. From the very first moment, Disney is creating this image that Stitch is different and an outsider. Take a look at him at the begining of the movie to him at the end:

Before his transformation:

After his assimilation:

Really different, Right? I thought so too. Disney makes Stitch so strikingly different to show his evolution, through which they can show the difficulties that every immigrant faces when entering a new country.

At the start, Stitch struggles to learn the American language, though try as he might:

Not only so, but Stitch also does not understand American life and terrain, as he shoots at the rain, aims his gun at a frog, and tries to bike off of an island on a tricycle. In subsequent scenes, he is also shown to eat with his hands and not share cake with Lilo. Each of these tasks shows his lack of knowledge for even the most basic human interaction.

A Quick Aside: the scene where Nani brings Lilo and Stitch cake to eat is a strikingly negative view of immigrants. Since we have established that Stitch is in fact an immigrant, his actions of grabbing the cake with his hands and eating without sharing portrays immigrants as crude and selfish to the American viewer. I must denounce Disney for this portrayal, but do believe the final messages about accepting immigrants is a positive one, despite this and other negative portrayals in the movie.

However, Lilo takes the time to teach Stitch about American culture, and under the ultimatum given by Lilo's social worker, Cobra Bubbles, she makes Stitch a "model citizen" by modeling him after the American Icon Elvis Presley. *Queue the Screaming Fans*

From the video above, Lilo is seen to teach Stitch iconic American cultural tasks, namely how to dance, how to sing, how to act like Elvis, and how to love. Through these tasks, she hopes to integrate Stitch into American culture. Though Stitch tries very hard, he finds it very difficult to grasp some of the concepts and actions, just like an immigrant may find it difficult to master American cultural tasks upon arrival. By doing this, Disney visually depicts the challenge that immigrants face when trying to learn new, American tasks. In every task Stitch tries, something goes wrong and he takes it very hard on himself. Nevertheless, Lilo persists.

However, it is not mastery of rudimentary tasks that help Stitch assimilate, rather, the feeling of family (the most important aspect of American culture) that catalyzes his transformation. During his first day home, Stitch goes on a destructive rampage and Nani wants to throw him out. Lilo doesn't let her introducing to Stitch and the audience the concept of "Ohana" which means "family, and family means no one gets left behind or forgotten." Making an inquisitive 'huh?' (previewed before), Stitch begins to understand the most vital part of becoming a citizen: having a family no matter what kind of family that may be. As the movie progresses, several other scenes (like the one shown below) show Stitch what family really means.

The poor guy is trying to cover himself up the same way Nani and her boyfriend are covering Lilo up.

In fact, Stitch only becomes a citizen when he proclaims to the Grand Council that Lilo and Nani are his family and that his real name is Stitch, in the final scene. (The Grand Councilwoman tries to arrests him for escaping from exile.)

Despite Stitch's initial troubles, in this final scene, he is shown to speak in perfect English, walk on two feet, and be as calm as a butterfly by not trying to escape. This change in both his personality and physical demeanor symbolize his full integration into American society. His assimilation allowed him to be accepted into Lilo and Nani's family and he will live happily ever after where he belongs. His newfound place in society spreads the message that assimilation, though difficult, is possible and beneficial if people form the community, like Lilo, take the time to invest in the immigrants.

Stitch as a Criminal

We see a similar imagery change when thinking of Stitch as a "reformed criminal," This idea of reformed criminals appears in many Disney films, as many Disney critics have noticed time and time again. To put it plainly, Disney wants to show that rehabilitation is both possible and better than incarceration.

Why would Disney want to send a message of rehabilitation of criminals? As the image above shows, many people approve of rehabilitation as a way to reintegrate criminals into our society. However, rehabilitation is almost nonexistent in America and recent political bargaining has led to a recall of Obama era policies aimed at phasing out for profit prisons, which now has incentivized for-profit prisons to increase incarceration rates. (Thanks, Trump). Seeing it as a moral obligation (and a money making opportunity), Disney wishes to shape the minds of viewers toward accepting those who are not like them.

Disney, through Lilo, is fighting back saying that rehabilitation and integration of criminals is the way to go. The montage scene above, shows Lilo's efforts to teach Stitch right from wrong. She begins by using a spray bottle to keep Stitch in line, and even though Stitch gets mad and throws the bottle, Lilo remains calm and assertive and doesn't throw Stitch in jail for the petty crime.

An interesting aside: Disney highlights that Stitch is incarcerated to no fault of his own. As mentioned, the Grand Councilwoman notes that, "He is a flawed product of a deranged mind," indicating that it is Jumba's, his creator, fault for Stitch being criminalized and incarcerated. To me, this is a commentary from Disney saying that different people's life chances predispose them to higher risks of incarceration to no immediate fault of their own. By sending this message, Disney is promoting equity in rulings, calling those in the criminal justice system to take into account a person's past when dealing a punishment, as criminals may be where they are because of societal pressures.

Though it is hard for Stitch, by the end of the movie, he learns how to control his anger and is able to save Lilo. In the final scene, Captain Gantu, head officer of the Galactic Federation, is sent to capture Stitch but then accidentally flies off into space with Lilo captive. Stitch, despite being introduced in the film as a "flawed product of a deranged mind," by the Grand Councilwoman, uses his knowledge to save Lilo. Using a gasoline truck that he drives into an active volcano, Stitch rockets himself into Gantu's windshield and takes him down, saving Lilo. His final transformation shows the great effect that rehabilitation has on the criminally inclined, as he becomes a good member of society by saving Lilo.

Stitch is a successful tale of rehabilitation. Had he not escaped exile in the beginning of the movie and found Lilo, he would most likely have been incarcerated. If this had happened, Nani and Lilo may not have stayed together and the entire order of the universe would have been thrown off balance. Stitch, just like any other criminal, showed the power that taking the time to invest in someone can pay off with great dividends to society.

Disney's Final Message and the Ugly Duckling Subplot

There exists a unique subplot in the film with the story of the Ugly Duckling. Stitch is going through books at night while Lilo is asleep when he stumbles upon the book. He then wakes up Lilo to explain the story to him.

Stitch is the ugly duckling. He is lost with no home to go to and no home to return to. He is shunned by both the alien and the human population and has nowhere to go. As an immigrant, he cannot return to the place he came from and cannot seem to fit in to the community he has stumbled upon on earth. As a criminal, he cannot seem to shake off the destruction that was bred into him, yet knows that some of his actions are bad. He is lost.

Through the help of Lilo, he learns to adapt and change. Through her, he learns how to be good and how to fit into American culture, embodying family values held so highly by Disney. At the end of the film, when he has fully been decriminalized and assimilated, he is no longer lost and has a family, "Broken, but still good."

Disney championed Lilo as the driving force in Stitch's transformation. Through their interaction Disney made it very clear that the best possible scenario for our communities is not to ostracize and push away those who are different from us but rather to love them and take the time to show them how things work and get them back on track to success. And when the current political regime wakes up to realize this, we might actually start building a better 'ohana' around the globe (like the Canadians).

Created By
Matthew Gayed
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