DreamWorks are one of the most consistent companies in terms of quality when it comes to their animated films. The Shrek movies are iconic, the Kung Fu Panda films are mesmerising, and the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy is arguably DreamWorks’ answer to Pixar’s first three Toy Story films. Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is the newest in DreamWorks’ line up, and while it isn’t as idiosyncratic as its premise would perhaps suggest, it still offers an agreeable level of warm fun for family audiences.
The premise is effectively what the film says on the tin, but to recap: Ruby Gillman (Lana Condor) is a sixteen-year-old living in the town of Oceanside. She has problems typical of a regular teenager – shyness at school, a desire to ask out her crush to prom, and a chaotic household ruled by her mother Agatha (Toni Collette). Agatha doesn’t want Ruby going near the ocean, and even grounds her from going to prom purely because of its proximity to water.
But when Ruby saves her classmate from drowning, the truth is revealed. She is a mythical kraken and the heir to a kraken kingdom deep below the surface. Krakens are hardened warriors who protect the seas by defending a powerful trident. Ruby is initially enamoured by this discovery, but her strength is tested when she befriends a mermaid turned human known as Chelsea (Annie Murphy), whose motives may be duplicitous.
At the core of Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is a heartwarmingly feminist tale on generational differences and solidarity. There has been something of an uptick in movies that detail the mother daughter relationship, a very welcome change given how scarcely this relationship was explored as recently as fifteen years ago. In this film, Ruby struggles to balance out her wants and desires against the rules and expectations of Agatha, who in turn made the choices she did as a result of her relationship with her own mother (Jane Fonda). There is something quite intimate and genuine about the portrayal of this relationship and how the unique strength of this dynamic influences and determines the outcome of the narrative. It feels earnest and confident in its convictions – a result of strong direction from Kirk DeMicco.
Like many DreamWorks films before it, the animation and colour palette of this feature are stunning. For better and worse, this is quite a hyperactive film, but the fluidity of the animation and explosive brightness of the colours really compliment this tonal choice. There is a zaniness and a playfulness to the film’s artistic expression that is hard not to admire. It comes across in the performances too, namely that of Lana Condor, best known for the underrated To All the Boys trilogy. She embodies the quirks of Ruby’s character and channels them into the wrestling emotions she’s faced with throughout her narrative arc.
There is a playful comedic tone that seems quite self-aware. Portraying its mermaid character as a stunning redhead is an instantly recognisable homage to The Little Mermaid, and the subversions that come with this tickle one’s funny bone. Meanwhile much of the physical or visual humour takes advantage of the unique circumstances that the film’s animation and setup allows for. While its dialogue is perhaps a little too quippy for its own good, and its hyperactive zaniness might be a bit overwhelming for some, it’s fundamentally good natured in its approach.
Unfortunately, the film isn’t particularly distinctive outside of its premise, especially when you compare it to the aforementioned DreamWorks’ films, which are often individualistic by their tone as much as their premise. It’s a perfectly delightful and vibrant film, but fairly run of the mill in terms of narrative progression and resolution. It ends up ticking a lot of referential boxes in terms of its dialogue and incorporations of real world elements, such as streaming platforms. Its overall execution at times feels overstimulated, as if it is trying a tad too hard to please its audience when its initial setup and thematic strength is more than enough. It’s nowhere near as grinding as recent animations like The Super Mario Bros. Movie, but its reliance on this means it’ll likely appeal most to the younger end of its target demographic.
There is plenty to like about Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken. What it lacks in narrative originality or cinematic individuality it makes up for with its amiable humour, playful characters and refreshing thematic resonance. It may not be a rare specimen like other DreamWorks’ pictures, but there’s just enough below its colourful waves that families can get a sturdy amount of enjoyment from it.
Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is in cinemas from June 30th
Director: Kirk DeMicco
Writers: Pam Brady, Brian C. Brown and Elliot DeGuiseppi
Starring: Lana Condor, Toni Colette, Annie Murphy, Colman Domingo, Jane Fonda
Runtime: 91 minutes