REVIEW — “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken”
Dreamworks Animation’s answer to Pixar’s Turning Red, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is a splashy summer adventure that gets caught in the wake of deeper coming-of-age tales.
16-year-old, mathlete Ruby Gillman (Lana Condor) and the rest of her blue-skinned family live in Oceanside where they pose as humans (from Canada). They are a happy family, but Ruby is stressed. Like Teen Wolf and The Little Mermaid before her, Ruby is navigating an ocean of emotions that involves dealing with mysterious body changes, first crushes, and a strict, overprotective parent.
In Ruby’s case, it is her mom-boss/Realtor mother (Toni Collette) who forbids her from entering the sea, which can be a problem for a teen who lives in an oceanside town. With her high school prom fast approaching, Ruby worries if she will even be allowed to go to the event with her friends, let alone work up the nerve to prompose to her skateboarding Algebra classmate, Connor (Jaboukie Young-White).
However, when a mishap sends her crush crashing into the ocean, Ruby jumps in to save him… and activates dormant powers that make her glow and grow into a towering Kraken. When video of Ruby as a Godzilla-size beast goes viral, the town goes on high alert. A hunt for the misunderstood “monster” is led by crusty captain Gordon Lighthouse (Will Forte).
After confronting her mother about her long-kept family secret, Ruby escapes to the sea to discover who she really is. With the help of her newfound Uncle (Sam Richardson), she meets her Grandmamah (Jane Fonda), the Warrior Queen of the Seven Seas, and discovers that she is a princess and heir to the throne.
Ruby also learns that it is her destiny to protect their underwater Kingdom of the Krakens against the evil, power-hungry mermaids, whom the Krakens have been battling for eons. Through a fun training montage the Queen teaches Ruby how to unlock hidden kraken powers like laser eyes and super strength.
Powerful, yet still unsure of herself, Ruby becomes torn between her life on the land and her destiny in the sea. That’s when Ruby’s new-girl classmate and Ariel clone, Chelsea (Annie Murphy), comes calling, revealing herself to be a mermaid all along. Her attempts to befriend the naïve Ruby are clearly a deceptive ploy to regain control of the mystical triton, the only object powerful enough to defeat the Krakens.
Flipping the script on dual sea monster mythologies is, indeed, the film’s most inspired concept. Yet, while the idea of establishing fearsome Krakens as noble protectors of the sea and reframing mermaids as vain and selfish villains is original, it isn’t explored nearly enough and any conflict that the mythical rivalry presents is too quickly resolved.
However, the Gillman family dynamic is enjoyable enough that franchise-happy Dreamworks can perhaps explore them further in a streaming series, as long as it includes Richardson’s enjoyably enthusiastic Uncle Brill and adds more serious threats than a one-dimensional, mean girl mermaid.
Directed by Kirk DeMicco and co-starring the vocal talents of Colman Domingo, Blue Chapman, Nicole Byer, Liza Koshy, Ramona Young, Eduardo Franco, and Echo Kellum, the animated action-comedy wades through very familiar waters. And once it plots its predictable course, it simply goes through the motions as if were on cruise control, waiting until the climactic final battle to really get things kraken.
The animation is vivid and impressive, however, Ruby Gillman’s story seems underserved. She is a teen who doesn’t feel like she fits in with either of her conflicting lives; however, the film just skims the surface of typical teen girl and her momma drama instead of diving deeper into the emotional dilemma that she is facing. Exploring the pull of her familial responsibility to hide who she is against her push toward charting her own path as a Kraken warrior in the human world would have taken this adventure to more surprising, engaging, and impactful depths.
While it’s a heartfelt, feel-good family film that kids will soak up, Ruby Gillman’s wishy-washy development anchors this Teenage Kraken story in shallow waters. 3/5
Rated PG with a running time of 1 hour, 31 minutes, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken opens in theaters on June 30, 2023.