When “Frozen” broke the pop culture zeitgeist upon release in 2013, it was widely celebrated for how it rejected the romantic standards of the Disney animated fairy tale. The heart of “Frozen” was the relationship between sisters Anna and Elsa, not either characters’ connection to a man. There was no prince saving the day or “true love’s first kiss” shared between a man and a woman. Moviegoers hailed “Frozen” for prioritizing sisterhood, but such praise made “Lilo & Stitch” co-director Chris Sanders a bit aggravated.
“To be clear, I think ‘Frozen’s’ great,” Sanders recently told The New York Times while celebrating “Lilo & Stitch’s” 20th anniversary. “But it was a little bit frustrating for me because people were like, ‘Finally, a nonromantic relationship with these two girls,’ and I thought, ‘We did that! That has absolutely been done before.’”
“Lilo & Stitch” opened 20 years ago in June 2002, 13 years before “Frozen.” While the film is not a fairytale, it did subvert Disney’s long-running trend of animated romances. Walt Disney Animation Studios dominated the 1990s with films such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “Pocahontas,” “Mulan,” and “Tarzan,” among other films. All of these titles incorporated a romance storyline between a man and a woman. Disney’s animated films went in a more adventure-driven direction at the turn of the century with “Dinosaur” and “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” but it was “Lilo & Stitch” that proved to be the studio’s most successful film in the early 2000s.
Directed by Sanders and Dean DeBlois, “Lilo & Stitch” centers on the friendship between a young Hawaiian girl and a blue extraterrestrial koala-like creature. The biggest relationship between two human characters belongs to Lilo and her older sister Nani, who raises her after the death of their parents in a car crash. There’s no romantic love to be found in “Lilo & Stitch,” just the bond that develops between two new friends and the love that exists between sisters. The film earned $271 million worldwide and launched a franchise that included three direct-to-video sequels and three television series.
“When the film came out, that’s what a lot of critics talked about,” producer Clark Spender told The Times, referring to praise over the genuine characters. “Those moments that were based in reality in a way that people could see themselves in, and it didn’t feel like they were cartoon characters.”
For Sanders, the focus on sisterhood as seen in Lilo and Nani’s relationship predates “Frozen” by over a decade. The co-director wishes the film would get its due for centralizing a non-romance at its center. “Frozen” wasn’t the first to do, after all. “Lilo & Stitch” is available to stream now on Disney+.