I an animation year that has seen astonishing highs (Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse) and disappointing lows (Elemental), Dreamworks’ Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken sits in the comfortable middle. A sweet and easy-to-follow story about a young girl trying to navigate high school, young love, overbearing parents, oh, and the fact that she’s a kraken hiding in plain sight from her fellow classmates, there’s little effort to be anything other than formulaic entertainment. And that’s perfectly okay, even as you see the potential to be so much more sunk into the watery depths.
Lana Condor voices Ruby Gillman, who might be an awkward teen but she’s hardly what you would call shy. She has a small but diverse array of misfit friends who are completely okay with Ruby being…well, blue. And her family, Toni Collette as matriarch Agatha and Colman Domingo as patriarch Arthur, are also colors pulled right out of the Crayola box. “We’re Canadian” is the typical excuse used and, to the residents of Oceanside, this is totally legit. It even fools old Gordon Lighthouse (Will Forte), a crusty old sailor/tour guide who believes thinks there are sea monsters around every corner.
Ruby is forbidden to enter the water, the entire Gillman clan stay away from it, which makes their decision to live in a seaside town questionable. To the film’s credit, that question is actually asked as a kind of joke. The screenplay does a fantastic job of poking fun at itself and the weird sea creature teenage angst at its core. But Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is best when it dares to be the anti-Little Mermaid, skewering our ideas of who the characters in that fairy tale are.
While Ruby is never meant to enter the sea, she’s forced to dive in to the rescue of her crush, Connor (Jaboukie Young-White), who has fallen into the drink. The mop-haired skater boy appears to be too-cool-for-school, but he’s just as much of a nerd as Ruby is. He’s thankful for being saved…except he credits the new girl in school, the arrogant Chelsea Van Der Zee (Annie Murphy). With her long, flowing red hair, Chelsea is a dead ringer for The Little Mermaid‘s Ariel; and what’s more, the people of Oceanside believe in the fairy tales about the beautiful mermaids who always do good and protect people of the sea. Well…the truth is considerably different.
The promos for Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken have given away quite a lot of the story and the narrative twists it takes, but there are still some unique joys to discover. Ruby’s birthright is far larger than she ever could’ve known, and that part of her life soon overwhelms the story, with her friends and even Connor fading into the background. But it allows for more scenes between Ruby and her mother, and eventually Grandmamamah (Jane Fonda), as the three generation of kraken women struggle to understand one another. While much of the film stays in the fantastical, what grounds it are these interactions which are heartfelt and often hilarious. When a dangerous threat emerges that could destroy the city, the only thing that can save it is these women getting on the same page and fighting shoulder-to-shoulder…or tentacle-to-tentacle. Ruby isn’t perfect; she’s a flawed teenage girl who rebels against her parents’ wishes and often flies off at the handle. Her imperfections are what make her feel true and real, despite being a big blue kraken.
While the messy Gillman family dynamics are the film’s emotional engine, it’s impossible not to miss the things it clearly glosses over. We see very little of the underwater kingdom where the kraken live and defend the rest of the ocean. Also, there are tons of missed opportunities by not leaning into the conflict between Ruby and Chelsea, and humans’ belief that kraken are evil monsters and mermaids are everything pure and good. Even Ruby’s high school problems are only a background concern. It almost feels like there are three or four separate Ruby Gillman movies fighting for our attention. Maybe what Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken should’ve been is the first part of a longer story satirizing The Little Mermaid? Perhaps it still can be. With a mix of relatable teen anxieties, familiar family dynamics, storybook fantasy, and a little bit of warrior spirit, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken offers a likable, positive female hero that Dreamworks could easily build a franchise around.
Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken opens in theaters on June 30th.