Lilo & Stitch and the Spirit of Hawaii

How an animated film from Disney captures the beauty and true spirit of Hawaii

Lilo and Stitch 2002
Lilo and Stitch 2002. ©2002 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved

Many films have been made in Hawaii, and still others set in Hawaii but made elsewhere. With few exceptions, however, only a small number of films have been made about Hawaii, and fewer still that actually capture on screen what Hawaii is all about.

True Spirit of Hawaii

It will come as a shock to many that the film that best captures the true spirit of Hawaii and the meaning of 'ohana is an animated motion picture from the Disney Studios called "Lilo & Stitch." Stitch is an alien experiment designed to wreak havoc wherever he goes, who escapes to Earth and gets adopted by a little Hawaiian girl on Kaua'i.

One entity that clearly understood the potential of this film to attract future visitors to Hawaii is the Hawaii Visitor and Convention Bureau, which signed a $1.7 million deal with Disney to promote Hawaii in conjunction with the movie.

But what is there about this film that captures so well both the visual beauty of Hawaii as well the spirit of the islands and such complex concepts as the Hawaiian meaning of 'ohana?

Personal Research the Key

Co-writers and co-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois did extensive personal research in making this film. Greatly impressed by the beauty of the islands, and Kauai in particular, the film's creators decided that the best way to re-create the island visually was to utilize a technique which had not been used by Disney Animation in over 60 years - watercolor. 

The production team spent weeks in Hawaii studying the geography, buildings, vegetation, and even the way the light falls from the sky at different times of the day. They painted and photographed houses, businesses, mountains, bridges and sea coasts, and incorporated many actual locations into the film. Production designer Paul Felix writes about his experiences in Hawaii in the excellent companion book to the film: "Lilo & Stitch - Collected Stories from the Film's Creators."

Felix writes, "In the small town of Hanapepe, I found all the usual homey details, ranging from rusted-out bridges to homemade mailboxes. In particular, I was interested to see how these details weathered in Kaua'i's unique climate. I took as many pictures as I could but tried, at the same time, just to soak in the general atmosphere, which is hard to reproduce in photographs. I certainly recall being impressed by the saturation of colors and the ever-changing moods of the skies and landscape."

Dean DeBlois writes, "The soft, rounded character designs and organic watercolors relax the imagery and ease the atmosphere, to portray a sense of Lilo's endless summer, childlike perception of her world. We designed her town in such a way that Lilo could get everywhere she wanted to go by means of little paths, quiet back roads, and even a cavernous storm pipe that runs underneath the main street. We had sent time in Hanalei and Hanapepe while on a research trip to Kaua'i, and these beautiful, sleepy little spots became the inspiration for Lilo's town."

Attention to Detail

Attention to detail is seen in almost every shot. Viewers familiar with Hawaii will notice such landmarks as the bridge to Hanalei, the Kilauea Lighthouse, the Princeville Hotel, the Na Pali Coast, the shave ice stand, green sea turtles and even a poster of Duke Kahanamoku over Lilo's sister Nani's bed.

The Hawaii of "Lilo & Stitch" is not the Hawaii seen in most motion pictures. Lilo and her sister live in a small, rural town. Her sister is struggling to find and keep a job in Hawaii's depressed economy, while still trying to satisfy the demands of the bureaucratic social worker. Many of the characters speak pidgin. The beach and ocean are means to escape after school, work or just a bad day. Tourists are a curiosity for Lilo, who takes their pictures and hangs the photographs on her bedroom wall.

What you see in "Lilo & Stitch" is one of the most accurate portrayals of the real Hawaii.

The Importance of 'Ohana

Interestingly, what finally became the prevailing message of the film was not included in the original story. Only after visiting Kaua'i and hearing a tour guide speak of 'ohana and the extended Hawaiian families that exist throughout the islands, did Chris Sanders realize that this would fit in nicely with their story and should be a major focus of the film.

The Hawaiian word 'ohana literally means family and the film's creators are careful to put a period at the end of that sentence. The actual concept and examples of 'ohana are more complex. The mainland concept of family is a mother, a father, and their children. Granted, many other types of families exist - this writer was raised in a household consisting of his father, two aunts, and grandmother. 

In Hawaii, however, the "other" type of family is more the norm than the exception. Many families consist of parents, grandparents, and children all residing under one roof. It's not unusual to see a child being raised by a grandparent or aunt while the parents live and work elsewhere. The Hawaiian family or 'ohana can also consist of others not related by birth. A valued friend can be a member of your 'ohana. An entire group of close friends or associates can be their own 'ohana. The late Hawaiian music superstar Israel Kamakawiwo'ole often referred to the friends he chatted with on the Net as his "cyber 'ohana."

To their credit, the film's creators did not attempt a detailed explanation of 'ohana. They let the circumstances of their film and two simple sentences convey their message in a way that every child, or adult, viewing the film will understand. 

At the beginning of the film Lilo's 'ohana consists of herself and her sister, Nani. (Their parents had died in a car accident.) Gradually Stitch becomes the third member of their little "broken" family. By the time the film ends, and in scenes from events which take place after the film, we see that their new 'ohana has added quite a few new members including Nani's boyfriend David, the social worker Cobra Bubbles and even the two aliens who were originally sent to capture Stitch, his creator Jumba and sociologist Pleakley.

As Lilo, in her own eloquent way says, "'Ohana means family. Family means no one is left behind - or forgotten."