‘Lilo & Stitch’ Director Felt ‘Frustrated’ by Praise for ‘Frozen’ Feminist Story: ‘We Did That’ First

Do you want to build a better Disney trope?

Eleven years before “Frozen” took over as the Disney movie of the decade, 2002’s “Lilo & Stitch” similarly focused on the bond between two sisters amid tragedy — and now, co-writer/director Chris Sanders is feeling a little iced out.

“To be clear, I think ‘Frozen”s great,” Sanders told The New York Times as part of a 20th-anniversary celebration of “Lilo.” “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” focused on Lilo, a young Hawaiian orphan who befriends adorable extraterrestrial Stitch after he crash-lands in Kauai. Lilo is raised by her older sister Nani after their parents died in a car accident. The film was Oscar-nominated for Best Animated Feature (“Spirited Away” ultimately won) and spawned three direct-to-video sequels, a trio of TV shows, and multiple theme park rides. A live-action remake is currently in development.

Co-writer-directors Sanders and Dean DeBlois had previously worked together in the story department on 1998’s “Mulan” and decided to focus on real-world elements including everything from the tension of grief to portraying “real” women’s bodies as cartoons.

Sanders noted that a side-by-side drawing of Mulan next to Nani, Lilo’s older sister, showed that Mulan was “actually missing pieces of her anatomy” and had an absurdly elongated torso. The setting of “Lilo & Stitch” in Hawaii also proved to root the family film in reality.

“One thing we learned from working on ‘Mulan’ is that when you’re setting a story in a specific place in the real world, there are places you can’t go,” DeBlois said. “There are some cultural elements you can’t use because you’re an outsider.”

Production enlisted a Hawaiian musician to consult on the hula dancing and choral arrangements and local residents were cast and consulted on dialogue.

Clark Spencer, who produced the film and is now president of Walt Disney Animation Studios, said, “When the film came out, that’s what a lot of critics talked about. 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.”

And back to discarding the princess fairytale romance pre-“Frozen,” scholar Shearon Roberts, who edited the book “Recasting the Disney Princess in an Era of New Media and Social Movements,” noted that Disney as a whole had been “slowly picking away at the ‘someday my prince will come’ message in the ’90s,” citing strong female leads in “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and of course, “Mulan.”

“‘Lilo’ then takes that one step forward by eliminating the male love interest,” Roberts said. The 2002 film may predate 2013’s “Frozen” but it’s clear the groundwork was laid for the mega-hit.

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