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Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch has a Glitch

Kīhei de Silva

Walt Disney Pictures released Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has A Glitch in late August as an all-new, straight-to-DVD movie whose content, Disney proclaims, is "an artistically stunning continuation of the original."

I agree. I am stunned by the artistry with which Disney continues to undermine Hawaiian culture. Disney does it so well—with such apparent sensitivity and warmth—that we who should know better are often beguiled into lowering our guard and allowing the outsider, in cartoon-cutie-pie disguise, to appropriate, distort, and redefine that which we should hold very dear. Some of us have even joined in this subversion, elevating our names and padding our pocketbooks in the process.

Among its many acts of warm-and-fuzzy cultural trampling, the first Lilo & Stitch took a treasured, 130-year-old name chant for our last king, sprinkled it with lines from a lesser-known name chant composed for our last queen, renamed the "new," cut-and-paste medley in Lilo’s honor, and silenced the time-honored melodies and rhythms of these old mele inoa in favor of a spiffy, West Coast, hip-hop hulahula.

Thanks to Disney, a generation of children knows "He Mele no Lilo" but not the originals from which it was ripped: "Kalākaua he Inoa" and "Ka Wohi Kū i ka Moku." Through Disney, we honor a toon and displace a king and queen.

As a further consequence of Disney’s corporate artistry, the words to "Kalākaua he Inoa" and part of "Ka Wohi Kū i ka Moku" are no longer our own. Not, at least, in a Western legal sense. Disney holds the copyright. Disney makes the money and parcels out the royalties for words composed by our great-great-grandparents for our last ruling monarchs, for Kalākaua and Lili‘uokalani.

The newly released Lilo & Stitch 2, plays equally fast and loose with one of the cornerstones of Hawaiian belief, literature, and dance—with the legend of Pele, Hi‘iaka, and Lohi‘au. There are still families today who trace their genealogies to Pele, who love her as a grandmother, and who revere her as a living presence. There are Hawaiians, as well, who continue to see themselves as keepers of her sacred tradition of story, poetry, and dance—Hawaiians who have devoted their lives to the preservation and proper transmission of this knowledge. As for the mo‘olelo and mele, the stories and chants, that constitute the Pele literature—kū ka paila, there is a heap of ’em. In addition to Nathaniel Emerson’s recently re-published and widely available Pele and Hi‘iaka (an English-with-Hawaiian retelling of the story), our various libraries and archives house hundreds upon hundreds of Hawaiian language newspaper pages devoted to several versions of what is more appropriately entitled Ka Moolelo o Hiiakaikapoliopele.

Disney’s director-writers Michael La Bash and Tony Leondis saw fit to bypass this wealth of information in its entirety. They turned their backs on the descendants, the keepers, the haole ethnographer, and the native newspapers a pau. The two traveled, instead, to Kaua‘i where, according to an interview conducted by the Honolulu Advertiser’s Michael Tsai, they "learned from a tour guide" the tale of "ancient friendship that proves love is more powerful than death." That’s right: learned from a tour guide.

The result of this deep research, of this LaBash-Leondis-tourguide collaboration, is voiced by Lilo herself when she outlines her plan for winning a May Day hula competition with a dance about the death-defying friendship of HeeHeeYaka and LowHeeYow:

Once there was a beautiful goddess named HeeHeeYaka and a handsome mortal named LowHeeYow. They were as close as two people could be. But one day, PayLay, the volcano goddess grew jealous of their friendship, so she took LowHeeYow and threw him into a volcano of molten lava. HeeHeeYaka discovered his body in a cavern by a sea cliff and she stayed with him, praying to the gods to bring LowHeeYow’s spirit back. And it worked! Love brought him back to life, proving that love is more powerful than death.

Disney’s fractured fairy-tale version of Hiiakaikapoliopele guts our mo‘olelo of plot, place, and meaning; it strips our po‘e me‘e—our icons, our culture-models—of the very personalities, relationships, and conflicts by which we identify them as Pele, Hi‘iaka, and Lohi‘au.

Our Pele and Hi‘iaka are sisters whose senior-sibling/junior-sibling obligations are central to their story. When Hi‘iaka prays Lohi‘au to life "in a cavern by a sea cliff," she is motivated by sibling duty and oath—not by love for Lohi‘au. She has yet to meet the live Lohi‘au; they are certainly not as close as two people "could possibly be." He has yet to fall for her, and she has yet to resist his concupiscent advances.

At this prayed-to-life point in the mo‘olelo, the mercurial Lohi‘au is in love with Pele, not with Hi‘iaka. He needs resurrecting because he has been driven, by abject loneliness for the absent goddess, into taking his own life. Pele has not thrown Lohi‘au into an active volcano. She has sent Hi‘iaka across the island chain to find him and bring him home—home to Pele’s arms in Kīlauea, Hawai‘i.

Lohi‘au, for his part, is anything but a paragon of virtue, fidelity, or insight; he soon forgets Pele, his eyes wander back and forth between his traveling companions Hi‘iaka and Wahine‘ōma‘o, and—until very late in the story—he regularly confuses genuine love with the stirrings beneath his malo flap.

Lohi‘au’s death by lava (he is overrun, not tossed) occurs at this much-later point in our story; it takes place at Kīlauea Crater (Hawai‘i, not Kaua‘i), and it transpires only after the trials of duty and passion, loyalty and betrayal, have taxed Hi‘iaka to the breaking point. Lohi‘au’s second round of death and resurrection is no more Hi‘iaka’s triumph of love over death than the first. Lohi‘au is restored by Pele’s brother Kānemiloha‘i at Pele’s request; Hi‘iaka knows nothing of this restoration until she discovers Lohi‘au in the court of an O‘ahu chiefess.

The ensuing reunion is dramatic, passionate, and ultimately transitory. Hi‘iaka and Lohi‘au chant, embrace, make love, and retire to Hā‘ena, Kaua‘i, where they live happily, for a time, as husband and wife. But sibling loyalties prove more compelling than those of romantic love. Pele calls for assistance when a dangerous kupua, a pig-demigod, appears at Kīlauea. Hi‘iaka responds. She bids a fond, mutually agreed-upon farewell to Lohi‘au, releases him from all obligations to her, and returns to the bosom of her family.

Thus ends the Hawaiian mo‘olelo of Hi‘iaka-in-the-bosom-of-Pele. It is a story in which relationships and their priorities are examined, tested, broken, redefined, and rebuilt. It is a story of chaos, order, and identity; it provides us with a world view on which we, like Hi‘iaka, can surf the dialectic. A famous Pele chant asks "I hea kāua e la‘i ai," and answers, "Ma ke ‘ale nui a e li‘a nei." Where do we find in peace in times of instability? On the big waves that we hold so dear. Hiʻiakaikapoliopele poses the same question and offers the same answer: little is stable, know your board, learn to ride.

Disney spins the heck out of our mo‘olelo. The result is a cotton-candy glob of a tale in which we are taught a sappy lesson-on-a-stick: if your love is strong enough, you can bring a true friend back to life. Disney then leads us, at the climactic moment of Stitch Has a Glitch, to view the toon-drama through the lens of "native" legend—to equate Hi‘iaka and Lohi‘au with Lilo and Stitch. Lilo cries over the dead Stitch, professing everlasting love for her dear, molecularly-glitched friend. And it works! Stitch twitches, he stirs, he comes back to life. Thus proving that love is more powerful than death. Thus proving that L&S are the modern-day H&L.

We can dab our eyes with the sleeves of our t-shirts—I did—when Lilo and Stitch embrace, but we cannot, must not, make the connection that Disney expects of us. The legend of "HeeHeeYaka and LowHeeYow" is not Hawaiian, is not authentic, is not Hiiakaikapoliopele. Lilo may be the new HeeHeeYaka, but she is absolutely not Hi‘iaka. Stitch may be the new LowHeeYow, but he is absolutely not Lohi‘au.

This is Disney at its most subversive. Stitch Has a Glitch makes a cotton-candy lie out of a gritty, complex metaphor and then feeds that lie back to us as cultural truth. Children everywhere are stuffing their faces with this pap—with spun-sugar marketed as kalo—and we who love poi are faced with yet another situation in which we have to un-teach before we can teach, in which we have to weather a storm of "lighten-ups" before we can attempt to enlighten, in which we find ourselves cast, through the magic of Disney, as grumpy kill-joys and out-of-touch traditionalists.

So where do we find harmony in these unstable times? It starts with our own careful learning of Hiʻiakaikapoliopele. Of plot, character, and kaona. And it absolutely requires the reintroduction of this mo‘olelo into the bosoms of our families. We turn off the DVD players, we gather the kids and grandkids at our feet, and we ha‘i mo‘olelo. It’s a long story. It takes years of bedtimes to tell and retell. When told and retold, it will again become part of us. As familiar as breathing. A board for surfing anything the world throws our way.