Disney achieved one of their greatest modern success stories with Frozen, the 2013 animated film that destroyed a thousand parental minds with endless repetitions of “Let It Go.” It was praised for its animation work, the songwriting work of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and perhaps most of all, a narrative that focused on the power of sisterhood over traditional Prince Charming-style romance. Per Variety, Disney director Chris Sanders has some issues with that aspect of Frozen: primarily, Lilo & Stitch did it first.
To be clear, Chris Sanders has no issue with Disney using Frozen to outline and empathize themes of sisterhood over romance, simply that the 2002 film Lilo & Stitch had previously explored extremely similar areas to not nearly the same kind of critical praise and massive box-office return. Sanders co-directed and co-wrote Lilo & Stitch with Dean DeBlois (directorial debuts for the both of them) on a relatively small budget for Disney, ending up with an excellent box-office gross of $273 million and an Academy Award Nomination for Best Animated Feature. However, it did not become the kind of cultural juggernaut that Disney found itself with Frozen. It is hardly surprising that the latter movie was viewed as something of a pioneer of feminist self-actualization, but it is hard to blame Chris Sanders for feeling it a bit unfair.
Similar to Disney’s Frozen, the emotional heart of Lilo & Stitch is two sisters. The older sister, Nani (voiced by Tia Carrere), tries to be responsible and care for her younger sister Lilo (Daveigh Chase) after the death of their parents in a car accident. Granted, the death of parents was a staple of Disney movies well before both Lilo & Stitch and Frozen both, but the relationship between an overly cautious older sister and a more free-spirited younger sister was definitely done first by Lilo & Stitch.
In a New York Times profile on the 20th anniversary of Lilo & Stitch’s release, Chris Sanders certainly does not run down Frozen and its emotional strengths. He just has a bit of frustration to see his own movie be sidelined a bit by the massive, billion-dollar, Oscar-winning success of Disney’s Frozen. Here is how he put it:
To be clear, I think ‘Frozen’s’ great… But it was a little bit frustrating for me because people were like, ‘Finally, a nonromantic relationship with these two girls,’ and I thought, ‘We did that! That has absolutely been done before.
To be a little fairer, pretty much every Disney animated movie has been overshadowed by the monumental success of Frozen, including Frozen II. Frozen became the highest-grossing animated film of all time (overtaken by the CGI remake of The Lion King in 2019) and is generally regarded as one of the best Disney animated films of the modern era.
It seems inevitable that Disney will get around to making Frozen 3 at some point, given the series’ proven track record for making all the money in the world. There have been no concrete plans announced for another Frozen movie as of yet, but it would be a real shocker if they left that money on the table. Lilo & Stitch received a direct-to-DVD sequel which became an animated series and then another sequel, as well as anime series, so it is not like that particular film was entirely forgotten. Still, credit where credit is due.