'Lilo & Stitch' turns 20! Tia Carrere on how the film portrayed Hawaiian culture with 'authenticity'

Carrere spoke to "GMA" for the beloved Disney film's 20th anniversary.

June 21, 2022, 4:04 AM

Twenty years ago, a little blue alien captured our hearts forever in 2002's "Lilo & Stitch" -- one of Disney's quirkiest and most memorable animated films.

At the center of the story are two sisters, Lilo and Nani, attempting to understand each other and move on after the death of their parents. Their lives are turned upside down when they adopt a strange-looking dog, which turns out to be an extraterrestrial creature known as Experiment 626, who is on the run from the Galactic Federation. On their adventure, set in Hawaii, the trio form an unlikely bond as a family.

"Lilo & Stitch" was a critical and commercial success, having made more than $273 million at the worldwide box office. Today, it sits at 86% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. It earned an Oscar nomination for best animated feature at the 2003 Academy Awards and spawned three direct-to-video sequels and three TV series.

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Tia Carrere, who voiced Nani, spoke to "Good Morning America" for the film's 20th anniversary, saying 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," Carrere said. "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."

PHOTO: In this June 16, 2002, file photo, Tia Carrere poses on the red carpet at the "Lilo and Stitch" Premiere at El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, Calif.
In this June 16, 2002, file photo, Tia Carrere poses on the red carpet at the "Lilo and Stitch" Premiere at El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, Calif.
Jean-Paul Aussenard/WireImage via Getty Images, FILE

The "Wayne's World" actress also said she is thankful to have been a part of a film that was both "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."

Depicting Hawaii and Hawaiian culture right

Carrere praised directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois for putting in the effort to depict Hawaiian culture accurately, saying 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," she said. "[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," she added, "and I think that's really why a lot of local people have embraced it also."

Some of Carrere's favorite things in the film are the watercolor background paintings, which she said "all look like real places in Hawaii" and aren't "just general renderings of some tropical island"; 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; and the traditional Hawaiian music featured throughout.

That music includes "Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride," which features local chanter Mark Kealiʻi Hoʻomalu as well as The Kamehameha Schools Children's Chorus, which plays while the characters are surfing, showcasing the joyousness of being on the water.

Then there's "Aloha 'Oe," the famous Hawaiian folk song written by Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom.Carrere sings the song during a pivotal scene in which the sisters spend their last night together before Lilo is taken out of Nani's care by child services.

PHOTO: Characters Stitch and Lilo appear in Walt Disney Pictures' 2002 animated comedy, "Lilo & Stitch."
Characters Stitch and Lilo appear in Walt Disney Pictures' 2002 animated comedy, "Lilo & Stitch."
Walt Disney Pictures via KRT via Newscom

"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," she said.

Carrere said one trope Hollywood has been guilty of in the past -- and could still work on -- is "a fetishizing of Hawaii and Waikiki and utilizing that as a backdrop for other people's stories," something she said this film didn't do.

In that regard she praised "Lilo & Stitch" for focusing on a local story and putting local characters in the forefront, saying, "It was Nani and Lilo, and we got to go out and be heroes in our own world."

The relatability of a truly out-of-this-world story

One thing Carrere looked back on fondly was how Nani was animated as a "solid woman with thighs" who looked both "powerful and beautiful." The two-time Grammy winner recalled women coming up to her 20 years ago and expressing their joy of 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 with a laugh.

Carrere said she most connected with "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.

PHOTO: Tia Carrere attends Gold House's Inaugural Gold Gala: A New Gold Age at Vibiana, on May 21, 2022, in Los Angeles.
Tia Carrere attends Gold House's Inaugural Gold Gala: A New Gold Age at Vibiana, on May 21, 2022, in Los Angeles.
Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Gold House, FILE

"It takes a village to raise a child," she said, noting how Nani isn't perfect in how she handles Lilo and how others in the community step in to help the sisters. This, Carrere said, 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."

Carrere said 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," she said. "Every time I see the movie it just brings a tear to my eye."

Disney is the parent company of ABC News and "Good Morning America."

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