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Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2003


Cartoon critters zap artsy lit crit

Lilo & Stich

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Dean Deblois, Christopher Sanders
Running time: 86 minutes
Language: English
Opens March 8


Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Neil LaBute
Running time: 102 minutes
Language: English
Opens March 1

It's easy to approach the latest Disney animation, "Lilo & Stitch," with a jaded eye. After all, lead character Stitch looks remarkably like a toy company market researcher's wet dream: Not only does Stitch (Chris Sanders) have big, adorable Bambi eyes and floppy rabbit ears, and scramble around like a puppy, he's also a snarling space alien with an attitude. He's the holy grail of kids' marketing: cute enough to be a plush toy, but edgy enough to be a video game.

And yet, somehow, between covering the demographic bases and engaging in the usual Disney moralizing, the film manages to get a little wild, spinning off on some satisfyingly zany tangents. Maybe it's the Pixar influence ("Monsters, Inc.", etc.) rubbing off, but "Lilo & Stitch" feels looser and less formulaic than any Disney animation in at least a decade.

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Alien monster Stitch and Lilo in Disney's "Lilo & Stitch"

"Lilo & Stitch" features a little Hawaiian girl who adopts a wayward space alien.

The tale begins with an alien scientist, Jumba Jookiba (David Ogden Stiers), being tried by the Galactic Federation on charges of illegal genetic experimentation. His creation Stitch, experiment #226, is a deceptively cuddly little blue critter that's actually an indestructible wreaker of havoc. "So, it is a monster," yells the prosecutor. "Just a little one," pleads Jumba.

The Federation orders that Stitch be exiled on a deserted planet, but en route he escapes, blasts into hyperspace and crash-lands on Earth. Hulking Captain Gantu wants to go in and obliterate him, but whiny bureaucrat Pleakley insists that's impossible, because the Earth is a "protected nature reserve . . . for mosquitoes."

Meanwhile, down on Earth, somewhere in Hawaii, a little girl named Lilo (Daveigh Chase) is having problems fitting in.

She's a bit of a freak -- feeding peanut butter sandwiches to her favorite fish and taking Polaroids of the fattest tourists she can find -- and ever since her parents died she's been miserable. Older sister Nani (Tia Carrere) tries her hardest, but the menacing social worker Cobra Bubbles (Ving Rhames) -- who looks like a cross between one of the Men In Black and Morpheus of "The Matrix" -- threatens to remove Lilo from her care.

Stitch is feeling just as blue; he's programmed to terrorize cities a la Godzilla, but there are none on idyllic Kauai. Then Jumba and Pleakley come after him with a plasma blaster, trying to "subtly" remove him from the planet. Stitch pretends to be a dog and gets himself adopted by Lilo, who loves her new pet even if no one else does. "Are you sure it's a dog?" asks Nani's boyfriend; "It used to be a Collie before it got run over," offers Lilo. Most of the jokes have that zing to them; typical is when Lilo takes a call from Mr. Bubbles, who's asking if everything's OK. Says Lilo: "Oh goody, my alien dog found a chain saw!"

Disney's in "Mulan"/ "Pocahontas" ethno-mode here, with Lilo and Nani making much of the traditional islander concept of ohana, or family, meaning no one gets left behind, as the film tells us about a dozen times. But to its credit, hard reality creeps in as well; the "Disneyfication" of native culture is implicitly criticized by having Nani work at a restaurant that offers gaudy luaus for the tourists. And the economic distortion of tourist economies is also reflected in Nani's inability to find another job after she quits wearing grass skirts at the restaurant.

This sort of stuff will just be background noise for the younger viewers who will love the spaceship duel and the way Stitch can roll himself up into a ball. But when so much children's fiction offers a sanitized, phony version of the world -- supposedly to "protect" their innocence -- it's nice to see a cartoon that doesn't pander. And it's funny, and has no ballads. What are you waiting for? Take the kids!

Neil LaBute's "Possession," on the other hand, tries oh-so-hard to be "adult." It's based on A. S. Byatt's Booker Award-winning novel and involves a "literary mystery" in which two academics in contemporary London try to uncover a secret and potentially scandalous love affair involving a noted Victorian-era poet.

Aaron Eckhart ("Erin Brockovich") plays Roland Michell, a scruffy American expat working as a research assistant who discovers a long-lost love letter penned by 19th-century author Randolph Henry Ash.

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Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow in "Possession"

Although lauded for his morals in his day, it appears that Ash was getting some on the side from the supposedly lesbian poet Christabel LaMotte. Reluctantly joining Roland in his literary investigations is Dr. Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), who just happens to be a descendant of LaMotte.

The pair retrace Ash and LaMotte's travels and re-examine their writings for clues, while rival scholars attempt to beat them to the discovery. And -- cue the cliche -- Roland and Maud, despite being total opposites, fall in love. The plot's a sleeper -- who really cares whether these two fictional poets did the dirty deed or not? -- but Roland and Maud's romance is even worse.

LaBute's view of what makes Yanks and Brits different is so stereotypical and so blindly America-centric that it's laughable. Roland is a rugged, self-confident kind of guy, with a perpetual two-day stubble to prove it, while every British male around him is portrayed as a snotty, effete jerk to drive the point home. Maud, meanwhile, is aloof, icy and aristocratic, with clipped consonants to prove it. The idea that this man-hating toff would fall into bed with a guy who hasn't showered, shaved, or even changed clothes for close to a week (as the film progresses) seems improbable in the extreme, yet LaBute serves it up here.

Still, that doesn't seem half as improbable as a real London lad greeting Roland by saying, "What is it you chaps always say, 'how's it hanging?' " Lame, yes, as is the "rapturous" poetry exchanged between Ash and LaMotte -- clunkers like "I am a creature of my pen," or "the earth is rich, but the metaphor is richer."

LaBute once had a rep -- in indie films like "In The Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors" -- as a director so cynical he made Todd Solondz look like Frank Capra. With "Possession," he discards all his strengths to no good end. Maud admits in the film, "I have a problem with compliments, both giving and receiving." Let's hope the same holds true for LaBute, because he sure won't be garnering any with this hackneyed, phony piece of Hollywood "art."

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