After rewatching Lilo & Stitch recently, I came to the not-so-remarkable conclusion that this movie is one of the saddest animated films I’ve ever seen. Lilo, our young protagonist, and her older sister, Nani, were recently orphaned after their parents died in a car crash. Though Nani certainly has problems handling their deaths and becoming Lilo’s new legal guardian, it’s Lilo who is more psychologically scarred. It is quite possible that she suffers from abandoned child syndrome, PTSD, or even PTSD of abandonment, which I believe is more commonly referred to as separation anxiety disorder.
Abandoned child syndrome is a condition that can result from the loss of one or more parents. In Lilo’s case, it is caused by her parents being physically no longer present in her life due to their deaths. It would also explain much of Lilo’s behavior, but I think it’s much more likely that she is also suffering from some form of PTSD brought on by her parents’ deaths and feelings of abandonment. On the website Abandonment, author Susan Anderson gives us a detailed list of traits caused by PTSD of abandonment, and Lilo’s behavior is indicative of quite a few of them.
When we first meet Lilo, we learn that she has an active imagination, and that she has clung to the fantasies in her head as being reality, which is probably just her way of dealing with the trauma in her life. Our movie begins with Lilo feeding a fish called Pudge a peanut butter sandwich. This causes her to be late for her dance recital, and when she does make it to the class, she’s sopping wet. She defends her decision to feed Pudge because she’s convinced that he can control the weather and that bad things will happen if he doesn’t get a peanut butter sandwich every week. Though the fish and his perceived awesome weather powers don’t come up again after this scene, we later find out that her parents’ fatal car crash happened during a storm.
It is this scene that we first realize that Lilo has psychological and behavioral problems. Not only is she dealing with her parents’ deaths by imagining that a fish might be responsible for creating bad weather, people suffering from PTSD of abandonment will also have “extreme sensitivity to perceived rejections, exclusions or criticisms”. They will act impulsively and have a “tendency toward unpredictable outbursts of anger”.
When one of Lilo’s fellow classmates makes a snide comment about her and Pudge, Lilo physically assaults her. The outburst is unexpected and sudden, when moments beforehand, Lilo had given no indication whatsoever that she was prone to violence. She ends up pulling on the other girl’s hair and even bites her. Later on, Lilo attempts to apologize to the girl in question and asks if she can play dolls with her and the others. After being rejected, both because the girls don’t like Lilo and because they think her doll is hideous, Lilo angrily storms away after throwing her own doll on the ground. Less than a minute later, she runs back to her doll, hugs it, then carries it home.
We see Lilo’s issues with abandonment constantly throughout the whole movie, and we even get a sense that she blames herself for what happened or that she cannot form strong connections with other people. Nani, wanting to help Lilo, takes her to adopt a dog. It’s at the shelter that Lilo meets Stitch, an escaped genetic experiment from outer space that is clearly not a dog. Though both Nani and the dog shelter worker implore her to adopt something else, Lilo has, within the first ten minutes of knowing Stitch, already formed an emotional attachment to him. For her sake, Nani gives in and they take Stitch home with them.
Once owning Stitch proves to be a complete disaster—he breaks everything he touches and has his own violent behavioral problems—Nani attempts to take him back to the shelter. Even though they’ve only owned him for one day, Lilo freaks out and claims that Stitch is family now and that family never gets left behind. Once again, Nani gives in for her and allows her to keep Stitch. Lilo, probably due to her need for emotional attachment and her active imagination, seems to be the only person who is unaware that Stitch isn’t a dog. Though everyone else is quite disturbed to watch what should be a dog walk upright, cosplay as Elvis, use the refrigerator, and even play records through his mouth, Lilo at no point seems to think that anything is out of the ordinary with him, because he’s now family and currently her only friend. However, as having Stitch around progressively gets worse, Stitch opts to run away, and it’s here that we really see Lilo blame herself. She watches him go and doesn’t try to stop him. Instead she says that she understands why he wants to leave and that everybody eventually leaves her anyway.
Though this movie is horrifically sad, as we are subjected to watching Lilo work through her abandonment issues with an equally traumatized Stitch, it does have a happy ending. People who suffer from abandonment issues can get better, and that is what we see happen as the movie concludes. Lilo & Stitch focuses on both these characters suffering through their issues and making some poor decisions as a result of their trauma. These issues, combined with Nani’s inability to hold down a job and almost losing custody of Lilo, really hammers in just how traumatic losing a loved one can be. That’s why it’s only at the end of the movie, after Lilo and Nani both learn that Stitch is an alien and recognize how much they both need him and each other, does it seem as though there’s hope that Lilo will get better. Throughout the course of the movie, she and Nani make new friends who they can call family and learn how to move past what happened to their parents. One thing that makes Lilo & Stitch such a great movie is that it doesn’t shy away from talking about these issues, and it makes Lilo’s characterization all the more real and sympathetic as a result.
Follow Lady Geek Girl and Friends on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook!
Thank you for writing this. “Lilo and Stitch” is the rare Disney movie that actually acknowledges the void left by the death of a parent(s); strange, given the number of dead/missing parents in Disney narratives. Although “Frozen” has been held up as a triumphant example for its portrayal of sisterly love, I’ll go to the mat for L&S as a stronger example of sisters holding tight to each other in the face of overwhelming grief. The scene where Nani has to tell Lilo that she’ll no longer be allowed to live with her and finds she can’t get the words out, choosing instead to sing “Aloha Oe”, is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in American animation.
I also have to commend L&S for daring to redefine “family” during a particularly conservative time in American political history. By the end of the film, Lilo and Nani have embraced Stitch, a same-sex couple (Jumba and Pleakley, because come *on*) and Cobra Bubbles. Also, for using Chris Sanders’ designs which allow human characters to have fat, hips and skin color. And, for being a rare Disney film in which the villains are allowed to grow and learn. My favorite Disney film!
Pingback: The Portrayal of Sisters in Pop Culture or Why I Wasn’t as Impressed with Frozen as Everyone Else | Lady Geek Girl and Friends
Wonderful synapses of one of my all time favorite movies. I wrote a paper aboutLilo’s use of Adler’s”personal fictions” as a coping mechanism. The entire movie is filled with brilliant insures into developmental/child psychology and Lilo is the most authentic, bravest, unique, and resilient children that Disney has ever created.