“Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” stars Lana Condor, Toni Collette, Annie Murphy, Colman Domingo, Jaboukie Young-White, Liza Koshy, Sam Richardson, and Jane Fonda. Released on June 30, 2023, the film has a young Kraken attempting to live a normal life as a human.
The film was directed by Kirk DeMicco and Faryn Pearl. DeMicco is known for writing and directing “Space Chimps”, “The Croods”, and “Vivo”. Last month, Disney reintroduced us to the fairy tale about a mermaid fascinated with the human world via a live-action remake of its animated classic, “The Little Mermaid”. Regardless of the mixed reviews, it made a splash at the box office, even though its total wasn’t on par with the money the other live-action remakes made. Weeks later, the folks from DreamWorks decided to take a stab at the Disney film by making the mermaids evil. The result is an animated film involving a war between two mythical sea creatures, with the only one caught in the middle being a Kraken living an everyday teenage life, in case the title wasn’t enough to convince you what it’s about. DreamWorks poking fun at the Disney fairy tale formula isn’t anything new, as the former previously provided this satire with the “Shrek” franchise. Of course, mermaids being evil isn’t something we haven’t seen before, either, as they’ve been that way since the beginning. However, that doesn’t stop DreamWorks Animation from cooking up this movie based on those ideas. With that said, let’s dive in and “sea” if this is another seaworthy hit for DreamWorks.
The story follows Ruby Gillman (Condor), a shy but kind blue-skinned teenager attempting to fit in with the regular crowd in the seaside town of Oceanside. That includes hanging out with her friends and gushing over her crush, Connor (Young-White). She lives with her overprotective mother, Agatha (Collette), who forbids her from going near the ocean. Yes, that includes prom since it’s on a ship in the middle of the sea. While saving Connor from drowning, Ruby becomes a giant Kraken due to her touching salt water. As she encounters her extended family, including her uncle Brill (Richardson) and her grandmother, the Warrior Queen of the Seven Seas (Fonda), Ruby discovers she’s a descendant of a race of Kraken warriors. For generations, the Krakens have protected the land and sea from their enemies, the mermaids. Additionally, Ruby is destined to inherit the throne from her grandmother, which, to be honest, sounds cooler than becoming prom king and queen. When a sinister plot unfolds involving a magical trident capable of unleashing chaos, Ruby must fulfill her destiny to save her family and the place she calls home.
Disney and DreamWorks have been rivals for as long as we can remember regarding their animated content. The early years of their rivalry have involved DreamWorks creating a few movies relating to Disney’s content, including “Antz”, referring to Disney and Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life”, and “Shrek”, which satirizes Disney’s fairy tale formula. This competition continued to be neck-in-neck in their animated slates until recently when DreamWorks gained the upper hand from the mouse with its recent and uniquely stylized films, “The Bad Guys” and “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish”. As for Disney, the studio still struggles to catch up, with the live-action “Little Mermaid” not making as much as its previous remake outings, and “Elemental” is still fighting an uphill battle to recover its budget. So DreamWorks is using this opportunity to release an “anti-mermaid” movie to rub it in Disney’s face regarding its remake.
The problem with that, however, is that no one in the target audience seemed to be interested in the movie as much as they were in “Elemental”. Believe me, I checked myself. It might’ve been due to the marketing spoiling the entire movie and the concept being slightly downgraded from the studio’s previous two films regarding the presentation. However, those things didn’t prevent me from seeing it regardless, since DreamWorks has a good track record of delivering entertaining family movies, except “Spirit Untamed”. Even though some of the stories aren’t as compelling and thought-provoking as others, the studio usually finds a way to inject fun and charm into their ideas. “Ruby Gillman” appears to be no different regarding its simple concept. Unfortunately, instead of taking full advantage of its idea, the movie did the unthinkable by making it less fun than the marketing wants us to believe.
Admittedly, “Ruby Gillman” isn’t without a couple of cute moments that DreamWorks Animation has been known for. It also has plenty of zany and vibrant colors that’ll likely grab young kids’ attention spans with their tentacles. However, regarding everything else, it’s a highly generic and derivative fish-out-of-water tale that threw its intriguing ideas out to sea and never looked back. The story offers a bare-bones narrative that combines the essence of a John Hughes high school film with a good-vs-evil formula involving the Krakens battling the mermaids, with Ruby getting caught in the middle. We see Ruby attempting to fit in as an average teenager despite her blue skin and tentacle-like hands while trying to ask Connor out to the prom. But, of course, her encounter with her family’s history forces her to question her real identity while navigating high school life.
The film delivers some inspiring messages about self-discovery, with Ruby being a tool for kids to learn how to love themselves for who they are. Its themes and comical perspective of the stereotypical sea creatures would make for a captivating, humorous, and heartfelt experience for kids and adults. But then I studied the screenplay, and…yikes. What a mess. As the film progressed, I knew it would not mesh well with its messages, and when the third act appeared, I was like, “Yep, I did not feel the vibe at all”. Not only was it full of cliches from other great movies with similar themes, including high school drama ones, but it’s also too safe and predictable in many places, including the twist from the trailers. I can’t stress enough that they must stop giving the plot away in the marketing.
The same can be said for its characters, who mean well for their amusing characteristics but struggle to make their formulaic natures memorable. You got Ruby Gillman as a shy and abnormal teen, Agatha as the overprotective mother, and Chelsea Van Der Zee as the snobbish popular girl who’s secretly a “mean mermaid”. Despite their simplicity and lack of compelling arcs, the characters benefitted well from the voice cast. After appearing in an “X-Men” movie and the “To All the Boys” franchise, Lana Condor jumps into the animation tank to provide the voice of the teenage Kraken. As someone who occasionally forgot about Condor, I thought she did a decent job making Ruby a likable yet periodically gullible blue-skinned teen. Toni Collette and Jane Fonda were also as delightful as they were in their live-action roles due to their performances as Agatha and Grandmamah, respectively. Annie Murphy delivered a decent performance as Chelsea despite her predictable villainous twist. Finally, there’s Sam Richardson as Brill, Ruby’s uncle and the movie’s comic relief. Honestly, I thought Brill was surprisingly humorous without being too annoying regarding the movie’s slapstick comedy and Richardson’s performance. He didn’t crack me up as much as Perrito from “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish”, but he’s fine in briefly elevating the film’s subpar humor.
Then we have the film’s animation. After testing fresh waters with the stylized presentation for “The Bad Guys” and “Puss in Boots”, DreamWorks returns to the traditional CGI format for “Ruby Gillman”. There’s nothing wrong with this change, but I do wish they would’ve kept the trend going. Regardless, the style is suitable for displaying the cartoony and vibrant designs for the characters, locations, and its third act. Instead of going for realism in the characters and world-building, the animation embraces the imagination and colorfulness of the movie’s quirky world, including the town of Oceanside and Grandmamah’s sea temple. It may not be in the same leagues as “Spider-Verse”, but it’s enough to dazzle me amid its poorly-executed plot.
Overall, “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” makes some small waves in its sweetness but struggles to swim past its mediocrity. Despite a few intriguing ideas involving its concept, the film is a vibrant but disappointingly formulaic coming-of-age tale that wound up sinking to the bottom of the ocean and never recovered. The voice cast was decent in their roles, and the animation was colorful and zany. Unfortunately, they’re not enough to elevate DreamWorks Animation’s weakest effort since “Spirit Untamed”. From its cliched and predictable story to the likable but generic characters, the movie is a downgrade from the studio’s last two films that’s as massive as the Kraken itself. I can see some kids enjoying it for its simplicity, but I doubt that most of them will remember it as much as they did with “Across the Spider-Verse”, “Elemental”, or even the live-action “Little Mermaid”. If you’re interested in seeing it regardless, with or without kids, I recommend you wait until it’s available for streaming.