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Whoa, Lilo & Stitch Wasn’t Originally Set In Hawaii, Or About An Alien

Lilo & Stitch dancing in 2002 movie
(Image credit: Walt Disney Animation)

Over the past two decades, Lilo & Stitch has become an especially beloved movie amidst Disney’s huge collection of iconic animated favorites. With the movie nearing its 20th anniversary, it’s time to look at its beginnings. According to Lilo & Stitch co-writer/director Dean DeBlois, quite a bit of the movie’s core changed during its development at Walt Disney Animation. 

When CinemaBlend spoke to Dean DeBlois about Lilo & Stitch, we asked about the evolution of the modern animated classic. The filmmaker, also known for making the How To Train Your Dragon trilogy, recalled how the idea was initially pitched to Disney. In his words:  

[Chris Sanders] had this idea that had been in his mind, a children's book he was going to write and illustrate and it had been kind of gathering dust on his shelf that he thought maybe it could be a quirky, smaller, almost B movie type budget, but with some sort of risks to be taken and some kind of adventurous departures from the Disney norm. And, I thought it was great. He pitched it to the co-president of Disney productions at the time, a guy named Tom Schumacher. And Chris's original story was about a creature of unknown origin who found himself in some great kind of Pacific Northwest forest. He didn't know where he came from, couldn't speak the animal language and then found himself ostracized by the rest of the forest community.

Chris Sanders, who co-wrote and directed the movie alongside Dean DeBlois, originally had an idea for a children’s book about a forest creature who was an outcast from his society. The pair had met during the production of 1998’s Mulan, which was DeBlois’ first feature with Disney. DeBlois continued: 

It was the story of this lonely creature in search of a sense of home and he would mimic the sounds of babbling brooks and wind rustling through the trees and that was his means of communication, and it was just this really sweet story. But, when he pitched that to Tom Schumacher, Tom said, well, animals of the forest are already a bit alien to us. Wouldn't it be the greater contrast to have that character end up kind of in the backyard of a human kid and let that relationship develop? So it changed from Stitch in the forest with other forest animals to Stitch and a boy in rural Kansas. And then that quickly evolved to Stitch with a little Hawaiian girl.

Lilo & Stitch most certainly would not be the same if it took place in Kansas and Stitch had landed in a young boy’s backyard. Here’s how it ended up becoming the movie we know and love: 

[Sanders] had just come back from the trip to Hawaii and he thought, well, that's pretty, that's a pretty finite place. You know, it's local enough that it's not gonna attract countrywide attention and military action and contain a small story, but it has a very specific culture to it. So that was the evolution. But I was there from the start, when he first talked to Tom Schumacher about this, this idea he had for a children's book through the story development of it and, and a little pitch that was made that had watercolor illustrations. And yeah, we would spend weekends and lunch breaks kind of talking about it and fleshing out what that story might be.

We’ve seen a lot of alien stories over the years, but it’s true: one element of Lilo & Stitch that really sets it apart from others is its location. Because it’s in Hawaii, it’s a smaller scale that doesn’t go that E.T. route, which later inspired DeBlois for How To Train Your Dragon, with government experiments and such. Along with Hawaii being a good setting for the story to make it unique, the filmmakers also sought to authentically capture the culture. 

One major element of this was through the casting of Hawaiian actors Tia Carrere and Jason Scott Lee as Nani and David, respectively. Carrere also spoke to CinemaBlend how the filmmakers of Lilo & Stitch brought “true inclusion” to the film by inviting Hawaiian people such as herself to contribute to the film beyond the script they had written. 

Lilo & Stitch is currently available to revisit with a Disney+ subscription. Happy 20th Anniversary to the Disney classic!

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