The Alien Has Landed
In our North American society, fantasy (whatever the medium) tends to be marginalised and dismissed as escapism, or nostalgia for childhood fairy tales. By contrast, science fiction, while still marginalised, is perceived as a more adult genre, somewhat validated by the use of science as the key point around which the plot is constructed.
This perception of the two genres is supported within the North American animation industry: the majority of full-length animated features are based in fantasy and overwhelmingly oriented toward children. These films may be retellings of well-known fairy tales, adaptations of children's books, or involve elements that our society associates with childish imagination, such as talking animals. This trend began with Disney's very first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), though originally not envisioned as a film specifically for children but classified as such in later years due to its subject matter and medium.
By contrast, over the past twenty years the Western film industry has seen an influx of anime from the East created by an industry aware of, and willing to cater to, an adolescent and adult audience. These serial stories or animated feature films also display a markedly different mode of storytelling: they include science fiction. Plots revolve around mythology, giant robots, technology, and different planets. When released to a North American market, viewers assume that due to the medium of animation, these serials and films must be for children. The truth, however, is that anime as a category acknowledges an adult audience, and is accepted as a more adult art form than mainstream North American animation. Much of anime uses science fiction elements, even within a fantasy setting, and the best-known cult films and series tend to be adult stories (e.g., Bubblegum Crisis, Macross, Ghost in the Shell, Neon Genesis Evangelion).
Lilo & Stitch represents a unique Disney product. Never before has Disney used science fiction as a genre to launch a major animated feature film for children. The choice to aim a science fiction film at a young audience creates a startling new challenge to the North American belief that cartoons are for kids and that science fiction is a more adult storytelling method than fantasy. (The Motion Picture Association of America, evidently aware of this, slapped a "Parental Guidance suggested—Some Action May Not Be Suitable For Children—For Mild Sci-Fi Action" rating on the film.)
Disney's deciding to accept and employ this mode of storytelling—and succeeding wildly at it—represents significant acceptance of science fiction as a valid storytelling genre within the North American animation industry. In addition to this statement of acceptance, by choosing to endorse a science fiction story Disney has transcended the fairy-tale/fantasy box within which it has comfortably operated for over sixty years. Expanding beyond those known environs has been rewarding for the studio, the audience, and the animation industry. In essence, Lilo & Stitch uses a form of storytelling associated with adults and, instead of lowering science fiction to the level of children, raises the Western animated film beyond something dismissed as for the young only.
The idea of science fiction is so fresh and new for Disney that it resonates on several levels. While science fiction may be seen as the province of the adult and fantasy the realm of the child, the choice to use the more adult genre to tell a story for children raises the standard of animated storytelling for North America. With Lilo & Stitch Disney explores a mode outside its tried and true successes, inspired perhaps by the ever-increasing presence of animation being produced in Eastern studios for adolescent and adult audiences with science fiction themes.
If it was a gamble, it was well worth that risk. In Lilo & Stitch Disney explores new ground with resounding success valuable for the entire North American animation industry.