I finally got around to watching Lilo & Stitch, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Save the Cat.
I spoke about Save the Cat on the Panel/Ferret Press blog, but here’s a recap: Save the Cat is a scriptwriting book that lays out exactly the structure for a hit movie, as well as some commandments to make the story connect with viewers. The first maxim is that your hero should immediately do something to get the audience on his side, ie; “save the cat.”
Lilo & Stitch breaks this rule right off the jump. The movie opens on a mad scientist, on trial because he has created a monster. Stitch is quickly established as a literal weapon of mass destruction as he steals a police ship and makes for a backwater planet (Earth, natch).
Likewise, we first see Lilo running late for dance class, punching a classmate, then biting her. We learn she’s an orphan being raised by her older sister. She’s a weird, troubled kid, but we do have a rooting interest for her.
Lilo & Stitch follows the Save the Cat structure pretty closely. There’s a good “fun & games” section where the mad scientist and an alien “Earth expert” try to capture Stitch. Stitch can’t be captured as long as he stays next to Lilo, but he also can’t cause too much havoc. Lilo indicates Stitch is 80 percent bad, although it’s not clear where the 20 percent comes from. But he sees her loving relationship with her sister, and starts to wish he had a family of his own.
The stakes are raised as we enter Act 3. The galactic council sends Captain Gantu, a no-nonsense military officer, to capture Stitch. In order to get a true “bad guys close in” moment, the movie is forced to put Gantu through an abrupt heel turn. He tries to capture Stitch without caring that Lilo gets hurt. So far, Gantu has not been depicted as anywhere near that kind of bad guy. Early in the movie, he refers to Stitch as an “abomination,” but he’s basically right about that.
So here’s our status: The movie has blatantly disregarded the “save the cat” maxim at the beginning, then artificially ramped up the conflict at the end to satisfy the formula. The first one doesn’t bother me, but the second does.
I’m not going to claim this is a refutation of the Save the Cat approach. It could be that the script needed one more rewrite to cover all of its bases. But it is an argument for not forcing your story to do something it’s not designed to do.