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REVIEW – “Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken”: Undersea Kingdom Takes Backseat to YA Frustration

Ruby Gillman (Lana Condor) in DreamWorks Animation’s Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, directed by Kirk DeMicco. © 2023 DreamWorks Animation. All Rights Reserved.

Mere months ago, it felt as if the animation world had been cast under a spell by an unexpected 2-0 win by DreamWorks Animation. The IP-friendly powerhouse found themselves in an unexpected place in 2022 – capturing hearts with two unique, well-told, oft-profound stories in rapid succession. We’d be lucky enough in other years to get one winner minimum out of the Glendale, CA- based studio, maintaining a position one half step behind its corporate sib Illumination. So, of course, it’s reasonable enough to anticipate whatever’s next to be as much a provoking, rebellious, anarchic, character driven adventure. And had they not wandered back into territory otherwise familiar with Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, it would’ve been just that – a robust, daring display of heroics. Instead, it’s just Turning Red, with mythical sea creatures, and their mishaps on dry land. 

Right from the start, as we’re introduced to Ruby (Lana Condor) and her family – little bro Sam (Blue Chapman), real estate guru mom Agatha (Toni Collette), and everyman dad Arthur (Colman Domingo), they all strive for a hip and outgoing approach to life. Slice of life, to the nth degree. They’re the only kraken in a human-centric community, walking fish-like creatures in a sleepy port town. Their alibi if anyone asks? They are Canadian. I’m sure that works every time. But it hasn’t come up since they each keep a modest profile. Ruby’s the most outgoing, and Agatha the most protective. Neither can agree completely, as the eldest daughter attempts to convince her mother for the thumbs up on going to “junior prom,” Of course, it’s thumbs down, and her friends are already going, meaning “Plan B” is a bust.  

Ruby trusts herself to elude mom and seeks to craft a flashy “promposal” for her crush Connor (Jaboukie Young-White). But even that comes with bumps, as Ruby discovers her kraken abilities after accidentally touching salt water, while saving her friend. From there, she quickly learns her family’s origins as protectors of the deep. An idea her Grandmamah (Jane Fonda) wanted most for her, and after they meet for the first time, agrees to train her on. Whenever the panic of fitting in, asking out the guy, or simply making sense of these rampant changes subsides, eventually. Once it does, Ruby’s eyes open wide to the triumphant conflict between kraken and mermaids, both sides ever persistently on the threat of inter-ocean war. The solution – retrieve a magical trident to unify the two, hopefully. 

As director Kirk DeMicco (Vivo) and lead screenwriter Pam Brady (South Park) will insist upon, Ruby can fly well on her own, but she’s better among allies. And even enemies, for that matter, laughable as they appear. By just being the popular girl in school, Chelsea (Annie Murphy, with unchallenged Mean Girls vibes) keeps the fish girl tense, though they make fast friends to an extent. Gorton’s fisherman clone Lighthouse (Will Forte) maintains the familiar urban myth among the townsfolk, ready to pounce if a real kraken should present itself. Grandmamah and Agatha go at each other’s throats on parenting styles. And the latter’s bumbling younger brother Brill (Sam Richardson) only looks to be a neutral voice of reason, whenever he’s not sounding all clingy. 

Teenage Kraken is all too proud to boast a fun, worthwhile ensemble, even if that’s at the price of a weak script equaling a half-baked sitcom pilot, with some strong coming-of-age adventure themes. Anyone anticipating a Little Mermaid rival will leave disappointed, undersea lore blazing a distinct path. It’d be worse if the animated style didn’t compliment the story so effusively, the design angle mirroring a modestly silly children’s book with blob-like shapes, and dimensional architecture that could coexist around Thomas the Tank Engine. It’s a far different, slightly more impressive story in the undersea kingdom; that cartoony look thriving best on Ruby in full kraken mode. All as her character strengths grow to match her ever-present sense of scale. One unsure of how to balance a tensely waterlogged drama, and overly familiar high school adversity.  

There’s no way we haven’t seen this sort of film before, done better in skilled hands. DeMicco does find a small number of avenues to differentiate from any manner of apparent influences. Even that doesn’t last long enough, impossible not to think about another work while still relishing Ruby’s plight. Aside from the generational disagreement, kaiju-like intensity, and a lovingly monstrous finale tying every end with string with energy buoyant, the whole venture plays like a carbon copy of far superior material, cloned from quality storytelling with a few finer details eschewed, like a stronger romantic turn for Connor, who can only swim with the motions. A tough shame, despite what the script can do right, recognizing found friendships and grown-up common sense with a reasonable edge, and some laughs, but not an overwhelming number. 

Ruby’s quest would come off even more static if it weren’t for an otherwise sharp cast, whose collective timbre helps to sustain a bright mood and focus. Fonda and Collette are wild aces, coupling simple empowerment with a cautious warmth. Domingo floats with ease as a spry ray of sunshine, though Richardson might have him surpassed on simpleton’s fortitude. But it’s all Condor’s show, primarily. Balancing strife, ingenuity, and a comical self-awareness, the Whidbey Island native quickly takes Ruby’s misadventures to heart. Her expressiveness and comic timing go unrivaled, making her a natural behind the mic without losing restraint. The scenario might be cartoon-y, but her work takes the adventure that big step higher. 

Take Condor away from the film, and the bullet points established that hope to separate Dreamworks’ answer to every recent cinematic diatribe of high school pitfalls amount to less than deserved. Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken sounds plenty heroic, and looks it too. Away from those intense notes where DeMicco and the studio brain trust make that effort to stage an anxious adventure of personal discovery, it can only settle for relatable YA chaos for a family crowd who wouldn’t mind a lack of distinction. I do, though, and the undersea denizens we’re introduced to don’t do enough to assume otherwise. One wishes the kraken/mermaid war would’ve been better emphasized, but whatever occurs is enough to keep the needle from drowning. (C+; 3/5) 

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken opens in theaters June 30, with early showtimes beginning 2PM June 29; rated PG for some action, rude humor, and thematic elements; 91 minutes.