Disney Goes Hawaiian
by Pat Davis
Given the island of Kauai?s starring role in such cinematic blockbusters as Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Jurassic Park trilogy, it somehow seems impossible that a major Hollywood studio wouldn?t have the Garden Island on its short list of potential film locales. Still, when Disney was seeking a secluded, idyllic setting for Lilo & Stitch, its latest feature-length animated film, the first choice was not Kauai but ... Kansas.
As producer Clark Spencer recounts it, Lilo & Stitch creator Chris Sanders? initial concern was finding somewhere remote enough to support the film?s one-of-a-kind storyline: ?At the time, Chris was looking for an isolated place where he could have an alien land? ? more on that in a moment ? ?and not be discovered right away. Putting Stitch in a large city would have been very difficult from a story standpoint.?
In addition, Sanders and Dean DeBlois had recently finished working together as co-heads of story on Disney?s Mulan, and, as Sanders puts it, the two artists were looking to do something on a less epic level. ?We had finished a movie of such incredible scale ? we were dealing with multitudes of people in China ? and we wanted to bring that scale way, way down.?
So Kansas it was, until Sanders happened to glance at a map of the Hawaiian Islands. ?I thought, ?Golly, look how small and finite that island is,?? he says. Even so, the fact that no feature-length animated film had ever been set solely in the Islands made Kauai a less-than-obvious choice at first. ?Animation has been set so much in ancient, medieval Europe ? so many fairy tales find their roots there,? says Sanders, ?that to place it in Hawaii was kind of a big leap. But that choice went on to color the entire movie, and rewrite the story for us.?
Which brings us to the story. The short version, as Sanders originally envisioned it: Lilo is a lonely young girl living with her sister. One day, she adopts what she thinks is a dog, and names her new ?pet? Stitch ? completely unaware that he is actually a dangerous and nearly indestructible genetic experiment escaped from another planet. The story called for Stitch to mend his ways under the influence of Lilo, but it was unclear what about her would bring about such a change. An early research trip to Kauai answered that question.
?No matter where we went, our tour guide seemed to know somebody,? recalls DeBlois. ?He was really the one who explained to us the Hawaiian concept of ohana, a sense of family that extends far beyond your immediate relatives. That idea so influenced the story that it became the foundation theme, the thing that causes Stitch to evolve despite what he was created to do, which is destroy.?
By now you may have gathered that Lilo & Stitch is not your typical animated film ? something that producer Spencer readily confirms. ?It?s a very different story for feature animation to tell, but [Disney] really believes in Chris Sanders as an idea guy ? he?s a rare, rare talent. And when Chris pitched it, everyone was so captivated by what they saw.?
So captivated, in fact, that the company took an unheralded step: Sanders and DeBlois, who had already been working together on the storyboards for the film before it was ?green-lighted,? were given near-complete creative control as co-writers, storyboard artists and directors ? a first for a Disney film.
As Spencer points out, even with a crew of 400 ? including some thirty animators ? the end result is a film of distinct personality, reflecting the particular drawing technique that both Sanders and DeBlois employ. ?We call it the ?Chris Sanders style,?? says Spencer. ?Every shape is soft and rounded ? all elements are slightly inflated, ?chubbed up,? as our art director refers to it, whether it be the clouds in the sky or the landscape or the houses or the street signs.?
It?s a style that hearkens back to the classic Disney films of the 1930s and ?40s, and in part explains the filmmakers? decision to resurrect an animation technique that hadn?t been seen on the big screen since Disney?s 1941 classic Dumbo: the use of watercolors.
?At the outset, I think everyone was very nervous that we wanted to try this,? says DeBlois. ?The notion of watercolor was originally abandoned after Dumbo because production schedules were getting tighter, and the background artists had to move a lot faster.?
?Watercolor is a very unforgiving medium,? adds Sanders. ?Gouache [the current industry standard] is an opaque paint, so if you make a mistake you are able to cover it over. Watercolor doesn?t forgive that sort of error, so you have to preplan everything you paint.?
This sort of attention to detail is readily apparent in the final product ? not only have Sanders and DeBlois overseen the creation of an action-comedy that simultaneously manages to be kind-hearted, edgy and funny, but they?ve done so while maintaining a sense of place that often goes missing in large-scale Hollywood productions set in Hawaii. It?s not just in the scenery or in the way the characters move and speak ? though the screenwriters got plenty of dialog help from Hawaii-born cast members Jason Scott Lee and Tia Carrere ? but in minute details like the Formica furniture that these days only exists in the time capsule of rural Island homes.
?Before we even went to Hawaii, we assembled this great library of photographs and magazine clippings and what not,? says DeBlois. ?One of the curious things that we found was that when you looked at the photos it was really hard to pinpoint when the picture was taken, because you?d have this really old toaster and this really old refrigerator, and right beside it you?d have a microwave, so it couldn?t be that old. We kept looking around and finding these elements of old and new, and it was so eclectic and charming that we made sure to include it in our art direction.?
When Lilo & Stitch opens in theaters across the United States this June, it will be the culmination of nearly four years of work, including some 1,200 watercolor paintings and over a quarter-million drawings. With big-name stars like Scott Lee, Carrere and Ving Rhames, and a soundtrack featuring contributions by avante-garde kumu hula Mark Kealii Hoomalu and Elvis Presley, it?s sure to be one of the summer?s favorites ? both nationally and in the Islands.
Looking back on their years of work, Lilo & Stitch?s directors now share a laugh. ?The luxury and curse of feature animation is that it tends to evolve very slowly,? says DeBlois. ?So you might be very sure of the film you?re making at year one, but by year three, half of that has gone out and been replaced by something else. Hopefully, it?s always getting better, but it bakes very slowly.?
?Yes ? we?re the crock-pot of filmmaking,? Sanders laughs. ?Is it done yet? Not yet! Check back in a year.?
Hawaiian Airlines is proud to be a promotional partner with Disney in bringing Lilo & Stitch to theaters nationwide this June.