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Lilo & Stitch 20 Years Later: How The Disney Film Authentically Captured Hawaiian Culture With Tia Carrere’s Help

Nani and Lilo saying goodbye in Lilo & Stitch
(Image credit: Disney Animation)

Following a slew of Disney’s most beloved films, like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Lion King, the early 2000s proved an experimental time for the animation studio. Between the release of Dinosaur, The Emperor’s New Groove and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, its storytelling was all over the map, and that brought about a mixed bag of Disney animated films. But among them, the most beloved of Disney’s Post-Renissance era is unmistakably Lilo & Stitch, which turns 20 years old this summer. 

Set in modern day Hawaii, Lilo & Stitch follows a young girl’s friendship with an angry alien on the run amidst her future with Nani, her older sister and remaining guardian, being placed in jeopardy. As the animated movie soon turns two decades old, CinemaBlend spoke with the voice of Nani, Tia Carrere, who brought more than dialogue to Lilo’s sister. The Wayne’s World and True Lies actress recalled having a say in numerous pivotal moments in the film. In her words: 

There's a scene where Nani has to say goodbye to Lilo and social services, Cobra Bubbles is gonna take her away. I love that when the directors’ asked me 'What would you say? Is there a Hawaiian phrase?’ I said, ‘Well, there's this beautiful song of love and farewell. It's possibly the most famous Hawaiian song ever written by Queen Liliʻuokalani and it's called ‘Aloha ʻOe’’ and they're like, ‘Could you sing that?’ So I sang it without even warming up or anything. And so that was what made it into the film, the hammock scene where I'm saying goodbye to my sister.

Tia Carrere was born and raised in Hawaii, and when she was brought on to the Disney film, she remembers she had previously been considered for a role in Mulan. While the 1998 film was not to be, Carrere shared that she suggested Nani’s love interest David be played by Jason Scott Lee, and was given the chance to contribute to the authenticity of Lilo & Stitch. She continued: 

[When recording] they’d ask me, ‘How would you say this?’ And I was like, ‘Lilo, you Lolo,’ the Hawaii word, Lolo [means] you stupid head. That's kind of like what you would say if you're from Hawaii. You wouldn't necessarily write it if you weren't from there. The [filmmakers] were really, really cool and open to collaboration on little things like that where I could infuse into the character. And so people from Hawaii are like, ‘Oh my God, can totally tell that you're local.’

Tia Carrere had a lot to do with making Nani sound like a Hawaiian teen, including with a memorable line “Lilo, you Lolo,” where she shows some playful concern over her young sister adopting a blue "dog" she calls Stitch. Carrere also said this: 

To be able to bring that Pidgin inflection, because Pidgin is a broken English because of all the different immigrants who came to Hawaii. They couldn't speak each other's language, so they had this broken English that is an amalgam of all different English words and some from foreign languages. At the plantations, where they worked the sugar cane and pineapple plantations, that's like my grandmother's family, my mom's mom, they were all like 11 kids living in one hut on the plantation. They all spoke Pidgin, so it's very much in my DNA.

During our interview, Tia Carrere also shared how the movie’s entire filmmaking team, led by directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, spent a lot of time to make sure Lilo & Stitch displayed the Hawaiian culture in a credible way, between the alien mayhem and such. In her words:

Chris and Dean, the directors, went to Hawaii and they did a lot of research on what the houses look like, what plants look like, what the island and the mountains look like. And it really shows, it's not like just some generic tropical island, you can see that they did their homework and bringing me on, being born and raised there and really listening to the people that brought their ideas and the Kamehameha Schools Children’s Chorus for ‘Hawaiian Rollercoaster Ride,’ all of this stuff is the real fingerprints of Hawaii all over the film. And I think that really was key is that they know they didn't grow up there and they invited people that are from there and wanted to hear and included [us]. It was true inclusion, because they included our creative ideas in everything.

In recent years, Disney has gone on to depict more cultures outside its European fairytale roots, such as the Polynesian culture with Moana or the Columbian family in Encanto. Lilo & Stitch holds up in many ways because the Disney team spent time to make Hawaii and the Hawaiians in the film feel authentic. The movie also told a modern and emotional story about two sisters facing perhaps their family being torn apart after their parent’s death. It had a quirky humor about it that stands out among some less charismatic or complex storylines. 

Tia Carrere’s role in Lilo & Stitch shows how important it can be for actors and filmmakers from the culture being depicted in a story being in the room. Celebrate Lilo & Stitch by revisiting the film, which now streaming with a Disney+ subscription, and stay tuned here on CinemaBlend for more about the exclusives celebrating the film’s 20th anniversary. 

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