Dirs: Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois. US. 2002. 85mins.

Lilo & Stitch may not push the animation envelope much, but with its modestly scaled story and retro cartooning techniques, this endearing ugly duckling tale could still give Disney its biggest traditionally animated summer hit in years. The film's $35.3m opening weekend US gross was the strongest bow for a hand drawn Disney feature in the company's customary late-June release slot since 1994's The Lion King. Lilo, whose appeal probably won't spread so far beyond a core audience of young girls, isn't likely to produce a Lion King-sized total gross overall. It should, however, handily surpass recent Disney offerings Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Mulan and Hercules and may end up performing on a par with the company's 1999 hit Tarzan (which opened with $34m and went on to take $171m in the US and $276m internationally).

Pointing to a promising new pool of animation talent, Lilo is the second feature (the first was Mulan) to have been produced at Disney's Florida Feature Animation facility. Co-writer-directors Chris Sanders (production designer on The Lion King) and Dean DeBlois (co-head of story, with Sanders, on Mulan) steered the project from inception through production and though their script has plenty of familiar elements - the story echoes everything from Pinocchio to ET - it also pushes the requisite emotional buttons with just the right amount of force.

The story opens on the Star Wars-like planet Turo, where Stitch (voiced by Sanders), the mischievous mini-monster creation of alien genetic scientist Jumba (Ogden Stiers), is banished to a distant asteroid. Stitch escapes en route and plummets through the Earth's atmosphere to Hawaii, where he becomes the troublesome pet of Lilo (Chase), a lonely little girl who lives with her 19-year-old sister/guardian Nani (Carrere). At first, Stitch's destructive misbehaviour - and his attempts to evade recapture by Jumba and his dopey alien sidekick Pleakley (McDonald) - threaten Nani's efforts to keep custody of her little sister. But eventually, Lilo, Stitch and Nani learn to live together, forming a new family to replace the ones they either never had or, in Lilo and Nani's case, had but lost.

The mix of rollicking fantasy adventure and affecting family drama works well, but it is the animation that ultimately sells the film. Mostly hand drawn, but incorporating some CG elements, Lilo & Stitch doesn't have the kind of epic set pieces featured in many recent Disney movies. Instead, it depicts the lush beauty of the Hawaiian islands in delicate but colourful watercolour backgrounds, representing the first major use of the technique since the production of early Disney films such as Bambi and Snow White.

The character animation is equally appealing. Lilo, overseen by veteran studio animator Andreas Deja (previously supervisor of such characters as Gaston from Beauty And The Beast and Scar from The Lion King), is a classic Disney cutie. And Stitch, supervised by Alex Kupershmidt, is expertly transformed over the course of the film from a snarling non-verbal menace - a kind of Pokemon with teeth - into Lilo's loving companion. Among the standout voiceover performers, 11-year-old Chase (who recently completed work on the English version of Spirited Away) adds the finishing touch to Lilo and McDonald provides some nice comic touches as Pleakley.

Lilo & Stitch is light on the kind of adult-oriented humour sometimes offered as a sop to parents of younger Disney fans. But adults will get a kick out of the film's inspired use of six original Elvis Presley hits. In the film, the Elvis numbers help form the bond between Lilo and Stitch. But for adults they provide an amusing reminder of Presley's kitschy 1961 movie, Blue Hawaii.

Prod co: Walt Disney Pictures
US dist:
Buena Vista
Int'l sales:
Clark Spencer
Sanders, DeBlois, based on an original idea by Sanders
Darren Holmes
Art dir:
Ric Sluiter
Alan Silvestri
Prod des: Paul Felix
Main cast (voices):
Daveigh Chase, Christopher Michael Sanders, Tia Carrere, David Ogden Stiers, Kevin McDonald, Ving Rhames, Zoe Caldwell, Jason Scott Lee