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Original co-director of 'Lilo & Stitch' has thoughts about the live-action remake
Christopher Sanders is "very curious" to see how the Mouse House brings his beloved creation into the world of live-action.
Disney doesn't take risks often, but when it does, the rewards are beyond measure. After a decade of established fairy tales and legends (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, Hercules, etc.) that restored its animation division to a former sense of glory, the studio began experimenting with fresh IP and bold reinventions of old classics.
Despite their beloved status among contemporary audiences, The Emperor's New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet were embarrassing box office misfires upon their initial theatrical releases. The only project to hit pay dirt in the post-Renaissance era was Lilo & Stitch, an offbeat coming-of-age story (one that marries '50s sci-fi, classic Spielberg, and the ol' Disney charm) about a young outsider befriending a chaotic visitor from outer space. It's a Hawaiian rollercoaster ride of emotion — a genuine exploration of family and belonging that never fails to bring tears streaming down your face. Several direct-to-video films, two seasons of a Disney Channel television series, an amusement park ride, and an endless collection of merchandise later, Experiment 626 has become just as iconic to the Mouse House pantheon as Mickey himself.
As such, he is not immune to the company's current practice of mining its own animated cache for live-action/CG hybrid remakes.
To Remake or Not to Remake?
In a recent chat with SYFY WIRE over Zoom, original Lilo & Stitch designer, co-writer, and co-director Chris Sanders gave us his thoughts on the forthcoming remake, stating that he's "very curious" to see how the titular alien is handled in live-action. "I think the most obvious thing is Stitch has to be Stitch, visually [speaking]," he says. "Details count, so I’d be very curious how they handle Stitch’s textures ... If he's not the same shape, he's not the same character ... Staying true to his appearance will be critical."
Given the fact that he is not of this Earth, Stitch will most likely be rendered in CGI, which opens up a can of worms in terms of the audience's suspension of disbelief. Can the remake believably pass him off as a stray dog like the original does without straining credulity?
"The proportions of Stitch in that world are easier to swallow because everything is hand drawn. When you go into a live-action realm...it'll be interesting to see what happens with that," Sanders explains, pointing to the life-sized animatronic built for the Stitch's Great Escape! ride at Walt Disney World (the attraction closed in 2018) as a good example of how it can work in the real world. "Standing in front of him was intimidating. Because you're like, ‘Oh my gosh! That’s what he would look like if he was in the real world. Okay, that's not even close to a dog.' So you could not walk in with him and go, 'Hey, look, I bought a dog at the pound!’ People would be jumping out of windows and running for their lives. If it's on-screen, will you be able to forgive it if he looks exactly the same?"
That question can also be applied to Dr. Jumba Jookiba (the mad scientist who created Stitch) and Agent Pleakley, a pair of aliens sent to capture Experiment 626 on behalf of the Galactic Federation. Throughout the animated version, the duo dons a number of unconvincing human disguises that would immediately attract suspicion by the regular human eye. "It is a tougher sell [in live-action], Jumba and Pleakley do not look remotely human," Sanders continues. "I would say that's probably something that would have to be adjusted — whether or not they have the ability to disguise themselves as humans. Maybe they have some kind of a unit that will digitize them, almost like a cloaking device that will make them look human."
The remake originally tapped John M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians, In the Heights) as director, but he ultimately bowed out due to his commitments on Universal's two-part adaptation of Wicked. Earlier in the summer, Disney found Chu's replacement in Dean Fleischer Camp, director of the offbeat and critically-acclaimed Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. While Sanders has yet to see all of Marcel, he has seen the trailer. "I thought it was adorable," he says. "It had it had a great spirit to it and I thought it was very hopeful."
Voicing An Icon
While Disney has not yet asked Sanders to be a part of the remake (he's currently working on a mystery title at DreamWorks), he wouldn't say no to reprising the role of Stitch, whom he has voiced — and continues to voice — since the very beginning. "It’s such a kick to do it," he says. "I'm very lucky in that I am able to maintain a connection to him, which is very important. He's a creature that I invented ... [To say] he’s very personal to me is an understatement. He is me and I am him. His personality is my personality. I built him to be that way. His chaotic neutral personality is mine. He's very near and dear to me and he always will be. I would do his voice in a minute, absolutely. I think it's also one of the iconic things. Not that somebody else couldn't do it. I'm not saying that. But I wouldn't imagine there's a real reason to depart from that."
In the early stages of development, Stitch began life as a totally non-verbal character. "It would be very much like Dumbo, he would be silent. He'd make noises and growls and things like that, but no verbalizations We quickly realized he'd have to say a few things, so we made sure that we kept it to a minimum." The voice itself was one Sanders used on a regular basis "just to bother people at the studio. I’d call people on the phone and do that voice and annoy them. Whenever I pitched my boards, I would default to that voice.
It was his fellow co-writer and co-director, Dean DeBlois, who suggested that Sanders play Stitch rather than a professional actor. "We were afraid that we would lose control of this whole thing," Sanders admits. "If an actor came in to do a voice and they saw that they had a grand total of 10 lines, we were afraid that the appetite from the studio would be to increase that."
Sanders doesn't hesitate to emphasize DeBlois's significant contributions to the project: "His [Stitch's] personality grew out of my pitch, but then Dean — who really shares sensibilities with me — wrote 50 percent of that character ... I never want to pass up the chance to compliment and thank him for shouldering half of that creation."
The duo would reunite almost a decade later to launch the How to Train Your Dragon franchise at DreamWorks.
Designing the Devil in Disguise
Holing up in a Palm Springs hotel room for three days straight ("not leaving, ordering lots and lots of cappuccinos and lattes and just doing all these drawings"), Sanders came up with a 29-page outline for Lilo & Stitch, which he ultimately pitched to Disney's then-head of theatrical animation: Thomas Schumacher. "[He] looked at it, he said, ‘You know what? I want to make this movie, but I will make it on one condition: that it looks like you drew it.’" To help the team along, studio artist Sue Nichols came up with a nifty guide called "Surfing the Sanders Style," which became "a primer for all the artists that would come onto the film."
Not wanting to repeat the "very angular" look of Mulan (on which he served as head of story), Sanders landed on an aesthetic that recalled the Disney animation of the 1930s. "I think one of the general rules was, ‘If you draw something make it look like it has about 10 pounds too much air pressure in it, so it has this nice rounded feel.’ But also, a lot of things are weighted at the bottom — legs, arms. When people are standing around, their lower arm is heavier than their upper arm, their lower legs are heavier than their upper legs. Stitch follows that same sensibility. So the whole thing has a really, really distinctive look."
Despite Jumba's assertions that 626 is nothing more than a horrific machine of pure destruction and mayhem, Stitch looks rather cute and cuddly, especially when he retracts his antennae and extra set of arms. "I wanted him to be audacious, I wanted him to be compact, and memorable," reveals Sanders. "One of the things I really liked was that he would have no pupils, that his eye is one solid pupil. There are a lot of animals you can find that have that same sort of effect, but that was really unique. The studio never pushed back on that, they thought it was cool from the very beginning."
Stitch's lead animator, Alex Kuperschmidt, would later observe that those expressionless pupils added an extra dimension of unpredictability by obscuring the character's inner thoughts. "There's a tension and an energy to him, even when he's sitting still and just staring at you because you don't know what he's thinking," Sanders says.
The animator theorizes that Stitch's "duality" — his capacity for bedlam and doing what's right — is why the little blue fuzzball has endured for two decades.
"He's a villain and he's a hero. He’s not a goody-goody and he's not pure evil and he’s chaotic. I think that if you have a neighborhood in the Disney [universe], I think Stitch's closest neighbor would be Donald Duck because Donald Duck actually possesses a lot of those qualities ... I love Donald Duck because he can be emotional and he can be mischievous. So many times, he causes his own problems because he gets an idea in his head and he does something and it's ill-advised ... He does stuff that Mickey Mouse and other characters wouldn't do. That reminds me of Stitch a lot."
"Ohana Means Family"
Wanting to pay tribute to the alien invasion flicks of the 1950s, Sanders initially considered setting the film "in a rural Midwestern town, a sleepy town with a very low population." Having recently taken a trip to Hawaii, however, the animator had a map of the archipelago on his wall — "just because it made me happy to look at it" — and suddenly had an epiphany. "I was like, ‘Hey, that's a rather finite place. It's an island where you can't necessarily draw a huge crowd. Could I put this in Hawaii?’"
America's 50th state not only offered up a confined location, but it also underscored the film's underlying theme:
"When you start these films, you're searching to make them work and before long, these movies take on their own energy, their own personality. You start by pushing these things down the road, but after a while, they start to build up steam and before you know it, you're now running alongside this movie and you're doing what it wants. It is demanding certain things, it takes on a life of its own. The whole idea that Stitch is this creature who doesn't have a family and the idea that a family is the thing that changes him...in Hawaii, they really have the ultimate interpretation of what that is — Ohana — which is a family is what you make it. A family is not necessarily the family you're born into. A family can be friends, a family can be a thing that you make. It can be big, it can be little, it can be anything. It’s the most beautiful, profound, strong, and brave idea of what a family can be. [Setting the film in Hawaii] was exactly what the film needed."
The production worked closely with native Hawaiians in an effort to present their culture as accurately as possible. "Having worked on Mulan, we really understood, 'You don't mess with somebody else's culture," Sanders explains. "You are very, very careful [and] you find people who know what they're doing, and they know the answers and you listen to them and you do things right.’ That was very much a part of the experience of Lilo & Stitch, engaging with all sorts of people who are Hawaiian and who understand the culture."
Hunk-a Hunk-a Burning Love
What's with Lilo's love of Elvis? The explanation is fairly simple: Sanders is a big fan. Plus, it didn't hurt that "The King" had famously played a live concert in Hawaii, circa 1973.
"It's something that I self-indulgently put into the story," the director says. "There came a point where we had to confront the fact that we had done three things that you couldn't do without permission: you cannot show Elvis's image, you cannot use his recordings, and you cannot use his lyrics without permission. We had done all three. So there came a point at which we were like, ‘We better face up to this and get permission for this or we're gonna have to make some changes right now.’ The producers of the Elvis estate that say 'yes' or 'no' to these things came out to California ... They were very, very serious and they really looked the part. They had their sunglasses on, they looked exactly like I hoped they would look. They came in, they watched the movie, and said, ‘We are totally cool with this.’ They were very enthusiastic and helped us all along the way."
Once the film was out on the big screen, he and DeBlois were honored at Graceland and given "the key to the city," Sanders remembers. "It’s not a big key, it’s a certificate. I have it and it's one of my prized possessions. We [also] got a tour of Graceland ... They even took us to one of the archive buildings and showed us some treasures that you don't normally get to see."
Invading the Disney Universe
Wanting his audacious new character to make a memorable splash, Sanders pitched a radical idea for the marketing campaign: what if Stitch invaded other Disney properties? "I said, 'Every time they do a lineup of Disney characters, they will be compelled to include Stitch and Lilo.’ I guess I felt like the whole thing was a little bit subversive. And out of that, came a discussion. I said, ‘What if we just did like the opening of Lion King and we did the whole thing, but when Rafiki holds this character up…instead of Simba, it'll be Stitch, and everybody will freak out and they'll drop him and they'll run.’ We laughed, we thought that was the funniest thing."
Dick Cook (the former chairman of Walt Disney Studios) loved the idea and gave them the go-ahead to make four teaser trailers in which Stitch crashes the most famous moments of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.
"I thought, ‘If you love Disney films and you're in the other room, and you hear Beauty and the Beast, or if you hear the Lion King theme, you're gonna be like, Hey, what's that?' You're gonna run into the room and you're gonna take a look. If you love Disney films, you're gonna see this trailer and you're gonna be like, 'Oh, what is that?' You're gonna be intrigued. If you do not like Disney films, Stitch being this disruptive presence that makes other Disney characters run or scream or have conniptions, you might be like, 'You know what? I think I want to see that.' So in my mind, it's like, 'Oh, yeah! … It's gonna get everybody.’ And I think it really worked."
The meta nature of these trailers gave Sanders and DeBlois got a chance to re-record Scott Weinger (voice of Aladdin) and Paige O’Hara (voice of Belle), as well as use the original artwork. "I worked on Lion King and they gave us some of the backgrounds to work with. And they were like, ‘Don't you put fingerprints on this! Don’t you spill anything on this!’ And I was like, ‘Well, I worked on the original. My fingerprints might be on this.’"
Two Decades of Stitch
As production on Mulan began to wind down, Sanders found himself in a Hallmark store in the middle of summer. "They already had their Christmas ornaments up and there was a Mulan ornament," he recalls. "I remember thinking, ‘I better buy that because I don't think they're going to make that again.' And then I thought, 'Why do I know that?’ Because I'm very proud of Mulan, I am incredibly proud of that film and the role I played [in its making]. But some characters are going to exist outside the film in a different way. Certainly, the characters from Frozen, are pervasive. They really have this cultural penetration. Other films, not so much. There's an alchemy to it that you can't really necessarily predict."
At that moment, he wished upon a proverbial star: "I remember thinking, ‘The next movie I work on, I want my character to be in that store year after year. I want him to really be pervasive.’ Or at least that was my hope. And man, did I achieve that ... Go to Disneyland or go to Disney World [and] go into different stores. They don't have Stitch stuff, they have entire Stitch sections. There will be shelves and racks [with] hundreds of Stitch things ... It’s been 20 years. I have worked on a lot of things since — all of them things I've been very, very proud of. But that one, for obvious reasons, is going to be the one I'm known for. And I'm glad for that."
Lilo & Stitch is currently streaming on Disney+ along with its three direct-to-video sequels and both seasons of the TV show.
Looking for more of Sanders' animation work? The Croods — which he co-directed with Kirk DeMicco — is now streaming on Peacock.