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‘Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken’ review: Watered-down potential

By July 2, 2023No Comments5 min read
a photo still of a red-haired mermaid embracing a blue kraken in Ruby Gillman Teenage Kraken

Despite refreshing visuals and great voice acting, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is never able to rise to the surface of DreamWorks’ best.

DreamWorks has been on a roll lately. Ever since the end of the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy, the studio has embraced increasingly innovative animation techniques. Just last year, The Bad Guys showcased the studio’s first attempt at blending the line between 2D and 3D. Later that year, they solidified their command of this style in the picture-book charmer, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. Seeing DreamWorks in action is exciting again, and their latest offering, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, continues the studio’s recent trend of pushing animation forward with a blending of 3D and claymation-esque style. Unfortunately, Ruby Gillman is otherwise quite shallow when it comes to its strangely-paced story.

Directed by Kirk DeMicco (The Croods, Vivo) and Faryn Pearl, this is the first major release by DreamWorks with a titular female hero. Ruby Gillman (voiced by Lana Condor) is a normal modern teenager who lives in the town of Oceanside. She’s excellent at math and lives with her family, who are absolutely normal, except for the fact that they are all sea creatures in hiding. This involves hiding their gills with polo necks and living by a strict mandate of “staying out of the sea.”

After Ruby clashes with her mother (Toni Collete) over going to a prom that will take place on a boat, she starts to rebel against her entire family. And when a series of unexpected events submerges Ruby underwater, she realizes that she, and the rest of her family, are not only sea creatures. They’re Krakens. And Ruby is next in the line of succession for their kingdom’s throne. Learning this broadens the emerging relationship between Ruby and her family, but when the threat of mermaids, the Krakens’ most feared rivals, reappears, Ruby will have to learn to adapt to her new Kaiju-esque powers, make sense of her role in the family, and somehow survive high school in the process.

a photo still of a red-haired student and a purple haired student in Ruby Gillman Teenage Kraken

A murky message.

Overall, Ruby Gillman is a standard contemporary coming-of-age story aimed squarely at young audiences. The growing pains of teenage life are clear substitutes for actual metamorphosis into giant creatures, much like Pixar’s Turning Red. Intergenerational pain plays a role in family divisions, just like with Disney’s Encanto and Pixar’s Elemental, and characters are concerned by the possibility of having their secret identities discovered, just like (you guessed it) Pixar’s Luca. Even if it is wrapping these plot elements with an interesting premise of warring Krakens and mermaids, the film never distinctly positions its thematic elements. This shortcoming allows for its similarities with other films (mainly Pixar ones) to be painstakingly obvious, especially when it comes to how those film boast better, clearer storytelling.

Pam Brady, Brian Brown, and Elliot DiGuiseppi’s screenplay constantly puts forth repetitive gags that are not particularly hilarious and that water down the interesting potential of its premise. For instance, audiences don’t learn enough about the dynamics between Ruby’s mom and grandmama (Jane Fonda) for the references to their fraught relationship to be emotionally resonant. Neither does the movie present any inherent stakes or risks related to the discovery of her transformation or the reveal of her family’s true nature. So at all times, it’s quite difficult to establish what the film is trying to say about immigrant families and growing up. Even when it tries to explore some of the challenges of trying to let go of one’s identity for the sake of assimilation, the message gets muddled in the waters of other underdeveloped plots.

A photo still of a mermaid attacking a kraken in Ruby Gillman Teenage Kraken

An awkward, teenage heart.

Despite its narrative flaws, Ruby Gillman overflows with personality. Condor’s voice acting excels at making audiences connect with Ruby, both in her relentless energy and her slight social awkwardness. Colman Domingo and Collette convey her parents’ quirky love and support. Fonda is an exceptional and regal mentor, and Sam Richardson (Ruby’s uncle) is as hilarious as always. The cast’s talent truly elevates the film. The dedication and care put into the movie comes through, and it’s especially evident with its dazzling animation style, which rises to the challenge of telling a story showcasing giant sea monsters and tender family moments.

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is not afraid of embracing a cartoonish style that reminds of rubber hose cartoons and claymation. Even if the Gillman family tries to stand straight to “make it seem like they have a spine”, they are quite flexible and dynamic. It’s really refreshing to see them stretch and flow freely through the diorama-like environments that accommodate creative portrayals of dramatic transformations and games of dodgeball. While some frames can be overwhelming, they are never boring. And the film’s approach to bioluminescence with cosmic neon color palettes is remarkably beautiful, along with the music accompanying the underwater sequences. There’s fine work in just about all the technical details.

Still, the film is less than the sum of its parts, but that doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time or a drought of entertainment value. It’s exciting to see the standout voice performances and delightful characters, and it’s encouraging to see studios continue to explore the potential of animation beyond the golden age of Pixar. But it’s a shame that the plot in Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken ultimately sinks to the bottom of the sea.

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is now playing in theaters. Watch the trailer here.

Images courtesy of DreamWorks Animation and Universal. Read more articles by Pedro Luis Graterol here.

Pedro Luis Graterol

Based in Mexico, Pedro Graterol is the News editor for TV and Film of InBetweenDrafts. He is a Venezuelan political scientist, violist, and a nerd of all things pop culture. His legal signature includes Sonic The Hedgehog’s face.

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