While watching “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken,” I couldn’t stop thinking about other movies.
The new DreamWorks Animation film from director Kirk DeMicco stars Lana Condor as Ruby, a – you guessed it – teenage kraken whose family is living in secret among humans. All Ruby wants to do is fit in, hang out with her friends, and maybe go to prom with her crush – but unfortunately, prom is on a boat this year, and Ruby’s mother Agatha (Toni Collette) has forbidden her daughter from going anywhere near the ocean. And when Ruby breaks that rule, she learns why. Any contact with water turns her into the mythical giant kraken – and it’s just a little harder to fit in when you’re 100 feet tall.
The basic bones of this story might sound familiar. It’s a very similar premise to last year’s “Turning Red,” another movie about a teenage girl who discovers that her mother has been hiding a huge familial secret from her, the discovery of which pits mother and daughter against one another. The similarities between these two films are not necessarily a bad thing. Frankly, we need all the movies about mother-daughter relationships we can get, and movies riff on each other all the time – both of these films have elements of teen movies like “Lady Bird,” or “10 Things I Hate About You,” or “Clueless,” and they’re both better for it.
And yet, the amount of time I spent thinking about “Turning Red” and a handful of other recent animated films only served to remind me what exactly I wasn’t getting from “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken.” It’s a perfectly sweet, enjoyable children’s movie with a few standout moments. But in general, the film lacks the type of artistry and specificity that makes a fine children’s movie great.
Besides a few genuinely humorous moments (there’s a funny running gag where everyone in town simply accepts that the family of blue people with gills are … just from Canada), if there’s anything that really sets “Ruby Gillman” apart, it’s Ruby’s character design. Towards the beginning of the film, Ruby laments that she’s sick of hiding the fact that she doesn’t have a spine, but in all honesty, she’s not that great at hiding it. The fluid quality of her movements is quite endearing as she oozes and slinks her way through crowded streets, shrinking and growing as needed. In a moment where she’s chatting with her crush, Connor (Jaboukie Young-White), she very sweetly twirls one leg multiple times around the other in a flirty moment of vulnerability. Paired with Condor’s vocal performance – who brings her teen romance experience from “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” – Ruby is a sweet, funny heroine who you want to root for.
One of the many reasons a movie like “Turning Red” works so well is due to the precision of its characterization, setting, and design, the specificity rendering the film’s emotions more poignant and powerful. Ruby might be sweet and likable, but her personality doesn’t extend much further than that. For the most part, she’s little more than a cipher for a kid to imprint on, rather than a real character that a kid can relate to.
I also kept thinking about the “Spider-Verse” films – particularly this year’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” – which have really upped the ante when it comes to what animated storytelling can achieve, at times looking like an abstract work of art plastered over a kids’ movie. In comparison to that, and so many other animated films that have come out over the last two decades, “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” feels behind the curve.
Ruby’s lanky limbs are a spark in the darkness, but she loses that trait once she turns large, transforming into a neon giant that somehow lacks true brightness. The portions of the film where Ruby is racing underwater as she learns how to control her newfound power are little more than dark, murky backdrops punctuated by generic pops of color and generic inspiring pop songs. The ocean, a setting that is ripe for beauty and discovery, instead falls flat – a dark swell of nothingness surrounding Ruby’s glowing, yet somehow dull form.