DreamWorks Animation had a successful year with movies that pushed the boundaries of the studio. Puss In Boots: The Last Wish added a fresh and exciting element to the Shrek franchise with its mature storytelling and new iconic characters. Additionally, The Bad Guys showcased an experimental visual style that delivered a dazzling world and intense action sequences. So, with these big accomplishments, DreamWorks has delivered a new addition to their originals in Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken. However, it seems like this coming-of-age story sits on the shoreline rather than diving deeper.
A teenage coming-of-age story of its own, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken centers around the titular Ruby Gillman’s (Lana Condor) junior high life. Though her family tries to fit in, Ruby defies her parents’ wishes only to discover her newfound powers as a kraken. Ruby’s accidental actions lead her to discover her place as royalty although all Ruby wishes to be is normal. In addition, a snobbish mermaid-turned-human named Chelsea (Annie Murphy) has gained the attention of everyone at Ruby’s school, raising suspicions for Ruby. With all these contrasting elements in play, Ruby must use her powers to protect those she loves most.
Visually, the film can be very colorful, especially in the underwater scenes. The bright neon colors used in Ruby’s underwater scenes bring a lively and exciting energy to the screen. This world is full of life and vibrant colors as Ruby’s interactions with the environment and its creatures invigorate excitement. The fluid animation style holds its own expressiveness, especially in the Gillmans’ designs and movement to invoke a unique vitality.
In addition, Ruby Gillman’s story focuses too much on moving forward rather than exploring the emotional challenges she faces. Ruby tackles typical teenage issues, from parental expectations to life-altering choices like navigating her role as the next kraken ruler to finding her place at school. Interspersed throughout the film, there are some emotional scenes between Ruby and her mother Agatha (Toni Collette) that try to delve into their complex relationship.
However, these are hindered by quick pacing, which rushes their serious interactions in order to get to the action quicker. In doing so, the film loses out on developing a stronger emotional mother-daughter bond. Ruby and Agatha have their own special charms, from awkward teen to over-caring mom, but the movie only lays out this simple foundation. Because of its focus on large visual set pieces, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken holds an underdeveloped emotional core. It really wants to manifest those same emotions from Pixar’s Turning Red, though it doesn’t have the same impact that film does.
Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken‘s side cast also tries to support Ruby’s self-discovery, albeit they mostly relegate themselves to diversions. Ruby’s father Arthur (Colman Domingo) and brother Sam (Blue Chapman) are often positioned as comic reliefs. Their Gen-Z humor consists of livestreams, dodgeball sessions, and trying to awkwardly help Ruby in the ways they can. While their lack of action is explained, it leaves them disadvantaged as Arthur and Sam’s slickness doesn’t have a big impact on Ruby’s journey.
As for Ruby’s friend group, including Margot (Liza Koshy), Trevin (Eduardo Franco), and Bliss (Ramona Young), they find themselves in similar circumstances with Ruby’s family. The trio are often in the background, only coming out to provide more substance to the movie’s comedy. Specifically, Margot’s trendy, extroverted routine in the first act serves as a diversion to bring more enthusiasm. This can certainly work for younger audiences, but it feels more plot-driven than anything else.
And then, you have Chelsea, the new girl/mermaid who slowly influences Ruby’s changes. Annie Murphy puts her own egotistical spin on the mythological figure whose design satirizes The Little Mermaid‘s Ariel. Her exquisite flair changes as her and Ruby’s relationship grows tightly knit, driven by their shared uniqueness as sea creatures. Although this is interesting in the beginning, the film actually exposes its final act as Chelsea’s personality is brought out. In doing so, the film gradually loses its tension in its predictability, which can bring viewers out of the experience.
Nonetheless, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken certainly knows what it wants to accomplish. The movie wants to explore its mother-daughter dynamic through embracing who you are. In the midst of teenage angst, ever-changing school life, and protective parenting, this story is heartfelt at its core. Sadly, its underdeveloped character-building holds it back from the potential it can achieve.
Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken wants to transform the mother-daughter coming-of-age story, but plays itself safe while doing so. It misses opportunities for subtle sincerity to Ruby and Agatha’s relationship due to the film’s focus on exposition and action. This film knows what it wants to be: a self-discovering exploration of being yourself in these new, different worlds.
This movie will certainly be great for families as it leaves an understandable basis for teenage angst and growth. However, because its character-building isn’t as fully polished, it ultimately leaves itself as just a satirization of mythology that stays near the surface.
Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken releases in theaters June 30.