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movies: Fine-Tooned

Facing down computer-generated technology, Disney draws on the past for the heart-warming "Lilo & Stitch."

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Drawing inspiration from the current anime craze as well as vintage Looney Tunes, this offbeat tale is a genuine heart-tugger for the whole family. "Lilo & Stitch's" plot is tried-and-true Disney: a young hero searching for a place in the world overcomes adversity, and by doing so, uncovers his or her true self. One can't blame Disney for sticking with the familiar, especially since it's proven to work magic at the box office, but this latest bit of family fare does stand out for more than its animation.

Disney's commitment to that familiar plot was so strong that "Lilo" writer-director Dean DeBois says he had to strike a bargain. In a recent interview, DeBois explains his negotiation skills: "The studio was aware of the pattern they were in, so we went in offering a different kind of film. And in trade we agreed not to spend as much of the studio's money, to use a smaller crew and to take less time making it."

The result is a terrific kids' movie with an edge, made for two-thirds the normal cost, that deep-sixes Disney's rose-colored view of the world. DeBois admits finding inspiration for his plot in past Disney classics such as "Dumbo" and "Bambi." Overstating the obvious, DeBois describes all of his movie's characters as flawed "to a degree."

His cast of "flawed" characters includes two orphans, one alien (Stitch) and one human (Lilo), causing all sorts of trouble; two bumbling aliens sent to capture Stitch and toss him into the intergalactic equivalent of the brig; and one at-her-wits-end but loving older sister (Nani).

"Lilo & Stitch" opens quietly and unremarkably, presenting a standard cartoon sci-fi setup with a mad scientist standing trial for unlawful genetic experimentation. The result of said experimentation is the genetically engineered, mischievous Stitch. Facing exile, our superhuman-powered troublemaker steals a spaceship and escapes to Earth. Landing on one of the Hawaiian Islands, Stitch disguises himself as a dog and is adopted by the precocious, adorable orphan Lilo.

Fast becoming inseparable companions, Lilo (voiced with charm by Daveigh Chase) and Stitch (Chris Sanders) wreak havoc in the neighborhood. Which means more work for big-sis Nani (Tia Carrere), who's trying to keep a social worker named Bubbles (Ving Rhames) from taking the trouble-prone Lilo away from her.

Like so many other Disney cartoons, "Lilo & Stitch" is about the essence of family (here called "ohana"). But DeBois and his animated charmers gently tackle this thorny cultural issue without a thought for political correctness. At one point, Lilo says to Nani: "We're a broken family, aren't we?" Those sorrowful words are all it takes to make kids of all ages identify with the pain and confusion of Lilo's young life.

Yet for all the weighty issues involved, "Lilo & Stitch" remains hugely entertaining, full of Elvis songs and scenes that will make both parents and kids 6 and older laugh. Add to the mix the gorgeous backgrounds done in watercolor for the first time since 1941 and a heart as big as the Pacific, and "Lilo & Stitch" becomes simply irresistible. S ****

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