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Tia Carrere explains how 'Lilo & Stitch' portrayed Hawaiian culture with 'authenticity' 20 years ago

The star credited directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois for putting in the effort to depict Hawaiian culture accurately.

Tia Carrere explains how 'Lilo & Stitch' portrayed Hawaiian culture with 'authenticity' 20 years ago
Image Source: IMDb

It's been two decades since Disney released one of its quirkiest and most memorable animated films to date. Featuring a little blue alien and two sisters, Lilo and Nani, who are trying to understand each other and move on after their parents' death, "Lilo & Stitch" proved to be a critical and commercial success for the studio. The film, set in Hawaii, made more than $273 million at the worldwide box office; earned an Oscar nomination for best animated feature at the 2003 Academy Awards; spawned three direct-to-video sequels and three TV series and currently sits at 86% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.


Speaking to Good Morning America on the occasion of the film's 20th anniversary, Tia Carrere—who voiced Nani—observed that the film's success taught the industry an important lesson. "For it to go huge like that I think really made everyone realize how important it is to have these kinds of indigenous stories or, you know, local people's stories out there because it is universal," said Carrere, who was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. "Even though we might look different skin-wise from other people... there's still a universal theme of love and family and togetherness against all odds."


The "Wayne's World" star looked back with gratitude at having been a part of a film she described as "ahead of its time" and "still timeless." "I was so glad to be able to represent Hawaii, because that's where I'm from. My heart is Hawaii," Carrere said. "Being part of 'Lilo & Stitch' was a dream come true for me." Crediting directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois for putting in the effort to depict Hawaiian culture accurately, she said that the filmmakers "really did their homework."


"It was so connected to the local culture and respectful of what it's like to truly grow up in Hawaii," Carrere stated. "[They] did an amazing job of not just broad strokes painting and writing what it is to be in Hawaii, but really putting the fingerprints on real characters that you would find in Hawaii and involving people that are from Hawaii. It really added a level of authenticity and I think that's really why a lot of local people have embraced it also." Some of her favorite things in the film, the 55-year-old revealed, are the watercolor background paintings—which, according to the actress "all look like real places in Hawaii" and aren't "just general renderings of some tropical island"—and the inclusion of Hawaiian Pidgin, which she described as "the broken English" spoken by Hawaiians giving the traditional English an "inflection" and "cadence," at her suggestion.


She's also a fan of how traditional Hawaiian music is featured throughout the movie. This includes "Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride"—featuring local chanter Mark Keali'i Ho'omalu and The Kamehameha Schools Children's Chorus—which plays while the characters are surfing, showcasing the joyousness of being on the water and "Aloha 'Oe," the famous Hawaiian folk song written by the last monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Queen Lili'uokalani, which plays during the sisters' last night together before Lilo is taken out of Nani's care by child services.


"In Hawaii, music and song are woven deeply into the fabric of the culture, so it was great to have that as an important aspect of the film and two very important scenes right there," Carrere revealed. She pointed out that Hollywood has—and sometimes still is—guilty of "a fetishizing of Hawaii and Waikiki and utilizing that as a backdrop for other people's stories." This film, however, focused on a local story and put local characters at the forefront. "It was Nani and Lilo, and we got to go out and be heroes in our own world," said Carrere. The two-time Grammy winner also appreciated how Nani was animated as a "solid woman with thighs" who looked both "powerful and beautiful."


She recalled women coming up to her 20 years ago and expressing their joy in seeing a character like Nani on the big screen. "With all due respect, Cinderella was beautiful and everything, but they didn't make [Nani] look like a brown Cinderella," she said. Carrere added that she really connected with how the film handled "the concept of family" and how that can look different for everyone. Two of those concepts that are explored in "Lilo & Stitch" are 'ohana, a Hawaiian term meaning family (both blood-related or extended) and hānai, a Hawaiian term referring to an adopted family, informally.


"It takes a village to raise a child," Carrere said, noting how others in the community step in to help the sisters after the death of their parents. This, she added, makes the film "a very modern story" that showcases what happens "in many households in Hawaii and in the U.S. and across the world." According to Carrere, the directors were "very clear about how they wanted to include all these challenges that these girls have to face, but also make it a fantastical tale about a cute little adorable alien that comes to earth that is also searching for the same thing they are, which is family and belonging. It makes me cry every time. Every time I see the movie it just brings a tear to my eye."

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