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Elvis Redux

With the animated Lilo & Stitch, Disney reinvigorates Elvis' legacy.

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When Walt Disney rolled into town recently to premiere its latest animated feature Lilo & Stitch, it's very likely a miracle occurred. For starters, there was plenty of that legendary Disney magic to go around. It began to manifest itself as each guest arrived for a celebration at Graceland and was wreathed with a lei of exotic flowers as fresh, fragrant, and intoxicating as the umbrella-sporting, blue drinks that were being offered up like water. Those cheap plastic jobs you can buy by the sackful at Party City apparently don't cut Disney mustard. Hula dancers shook their grass skirts beneath the colored lights, King Louie the fire dancer twirled his blazing baton, and an Elvis impersonator wailed hits ranging from "(You're the) Devil In Disguise" to "An American Trilogy." It was nearly impossible to recognize that strip of land directly across from Elvis' palatial pad, since it had been transformed into a version of Pleasure Island where revelers stood in lengthy lines to have their images digitally imposed in front of a cartoon version of Graceland's musical gates, even though the real gates were no more than 20 yards away. But this is not the miracle I speak of. That happened back at Muvico downtown. Somewhere between the opening flickers of Lilo & Stitch and its closing credits, Elvis came back to life. Well, at least his music did.

Here's an experiment: Go up to 10 people at random. Convince them to play a word-association game where they respond to you by blurting out the first word that pops into their heads. Then say "Elvis." If my theory is correct (and I think it is), none of the people you quiz will respond "rock-and-roll." You'll hear "Graceland," maybe, or "Memphis." Perhaps they will say "peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches" or, if you are lucky, "pelvis." These things, along with the man's legendary generosity, are the things we've kept alive in our cultural memory since our King passed away. But through its insistence that Elvis was a model citizen and through its clever use of some of his more enduring songs, Lilo & Stitch (an unusually mean and significantly less sappy answer to Spielberg's E.T.) has pretty much ensured that every 6-year-old who picks up a toy guitar in the next few years will be belting out "Suspicious Minds." It's exactly what Elvis Presley Enterprises needed on the eve of the 25th anniversary of its namesake's death, when it was clear that Elvis' most rabid fans were getting up in age and new ones weren't being easily made.

Lilo & Stitch begins at a tribunal somewhere in outer space. A mad scientist (or, as he prefers to be called, "an evil genius") has created a monster. "Experiment 626," as he is called, has four arms outfitted with dangerous claws, can lift 3,000 times his own body weight, and has but a single mission in life: to destroy everything he encounters. 626 may be cute as the dickens, but he's meaner than 10 Grinches and virtually indestructible. When 626 escapes to Earth, his alien captors set out to capture him without upsetting the delicate balance of nature on our planet, which has been officially declared a "wildlife preserve." One alien says of the fragile creatures that inhabit this protected planet, "Every time a comet strikes, they have to start all over again." Poor things.

Realizing that he is trapped on an island with nothing significant to destroy, 626 poses as a rather unusual puppy and is adopted by Lilo, an orphan being raised by her sister Nani and whose serious behavioral problems have aroused the attention of a particularly unforgiving social worker. Of course, things only get worse when 626, rechristened Stitch by the quirky and occasionally violent Lilo, begins to destroy what's left of the unfortunate sister's impoverished existence. From the food-encrusted stove to the uncertainty of the job market, this is Disney's most realistic portrait of a broken home, giving the company a credibility it had lost with its revisionist fairy tales and fabricated versions of historical events. Of course, this is Disney. The ending is a happy one, and it comes with a message: Family is the most important thing there is. It's a fine message, delivered with only a modicum of sap.

With its references to old-time monster movies (the diminutive Stitch builds a tiny model of San Francisco then wrecks it Godzilla-style), L&S has plenty of good, old-fashioned geek-appeal that will be welcomed by sci-fi fans of every age and stripe. The fact that Nani has been drawn as a thick-legged goddess whose belly button is ever-present likewise suggests that the film's appeal will reach well beyond the lunch-pail set. For Elvis fans, it will become a must-see film, and the chances are good that youngsters who have only the vaguest idea who Elvis was or what he was about will leave the theater swiveling their hips, singing his songs, and trying their best to cultivate their Elvis nature.

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