Light years away from Planet Earth, a mad scientist has been put on trial for his crimes. He is Jumba (voiced by David Ogden Stiers), and is unrepentant about creating a new and unnamed lifeform (Chris Sanders) which is intent on destroying everything it gets its hands on. The Grand Councilwoman (Zoe Caldwell) places Jumba in prison and the lifeform is banished to an asteroid where he can do no more harm - or that's the idea. However, on the way he manages to break free of his bonds and steal a spaceship, and as the law try to capture him he leaps into hyperspace and ends up crashlanding on a certain blue-green world...
This little alien is the Stitch of the title, of course, but he is not so named right away. He was the creation of co-director Sanders, who as mentioned provided the creature's voice, and had been buzzing around the filmmaker's brain for some time until he had the chance to build a movie around him, offering Disney a medium-sized hit in the process. This in turn spawned a well-regarded television series, so all told Lilo & Stitch made a decent enough account of itself, even if there's a sense of earnestness about its tone which does not quite marry to the wacky slapstick that runs throughout the story in fits and starts.
But when it's funny, it's very funny indeed, with not only the alien providing the laughs but the little girl, Lilo (Daveigh Chase) being pretty amusing too. They are both misfits in the worlds they exist in, as the Hawaiian girl who lives with her sister since their parents died is a problem child who doesn't really have any friends due to her anti-social tendencies. She isn't malicious, but she does fly off the handle so often that she is now being threatened with being put into care if her older sister Nani (Tia Carrere) cannot prove she can look after her adequately. So who should step into this less than idyllic scenario than Stitch?
He crashlands on Hawaii and almost immediately gets run over by some trucks, yet is so strong he is not squished, merely rendered unconscious and placed in an animal shelter. This is where Nani takes Lilo, hoping that a pet might make the girl better behaved, and naturally the second she spots the alien she wants to take him home. Nani is less than impressed, but feels she has to keep her sister cheerful in spite of the new acquisition being even less tranquil than Lilo: he actually has quite the appetite for destruction. It doesn't take a child psychologist to fathom what Sanders and co-director Dean DeBlois were aiming for here, and that's to provide succour for any budding juvenile delinquents who might be watching.
So there's a lot of the social worker in the narrative, but luckily it rarely turns to preaching or feeling like a firm but fair talking to from an authority figure. This is thanks to a sprightly way with the characters, with Stitch a naughty but not evil presence - watch for the way he sticks his feet in his mouth to roll about the floor as a means of perambulation for one of many imaginative touches. The plot runs out about the halfway mark, but the re-emergence of the two bumblers who are trying to recapture the fugitive means the action-packed finale is not far away, and there's plenty of comic mileage to be had in that. Lilo & Stitch wishes to touch the heart as well as tickle the funnybone, and the sentiment eventually is laid on far too thick, toppling into schmaltz, though by this time the characters have endeared themselves to you and you do want to see a happy ending, something they're only to pleased to provide. Music by Alan Silvestri, along with a few Elvis Presley hits (Lilo is a fan).
For most studios the subject matter might not seem too risky, but for Disney it was, given Lilo is clearly a troubled girl. This handles a tricky topic with the right balance of slapstick and, yes, sentiment and is such a wacky concoction (Hawaii? Aliens? Elvis?) it disarms you. This unassuming Disney project was a hit where their more hyped and ambitious efforts from around this time were costly failures. Which makes it all the more galling that everyone who worked on it was sacked shortly thereafter. Fortunately, Mr Lassetter arrived to set things right and put the bean-counters in their place.