From Harry Hamlin-starred ‘Clash of Titans’ to ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,’ the legendary sea monster of Kraken is typically depicted as an antagonist. But in the case of DreamWorks Animation’s ‘Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken,’ co-directors Kirk DeMicco and Faryn Pearl subvert our usual expectations by re-imagining a Kraken as an… awkward 16-year-old teenager.
We are introduced to the main protagonist named, Ruby Gillman (voiced by Lana Condor), who lives with her parents (Toni Collette and Colman Domingo) and younger brother (Blue Chapman). Her mother works as a real estate agent, while her dad is an expert in building ships in bottles and even manages an online video channel about them.
The Gillmans don’t stay in the ocean like the Krakens do but rather at the seaside town of Oceanside. Above the land, that is, and they have been living their lives in disguise. Their so-called “disguise” is more of a broad term since they have obvious blue skins that remain visible.
So, it was kind of baffling to see why Ruby even bothers to hide her gills by wearing turtlenecks whenever she goes to school. Of course, there is a skeptical folk in town – Gordon Lighthouse (Will Forte), a gruff old sailor who works as a tour guide, and he’s been suspicious about the Gillmans’ background and identity. Fortunately, Ruby manages to get away with it by saying she’s from Canada.
Anyway, we also learn that Ruby’s mom forbids her from going into the ocean at all costs. But Ruby has been looking forward to prom that happens to take place on a yacht. She also wants to ask her longtime crush and fellow math enthusiast, Connor (Jaboukie Young-White), to prom, which subsequently leads to an accident.
Connor slips and falls into the ocean, and Ruby jumps to save him. Her drastic action upon going underwater turns her into a giant Kraken, and the town soon knows about it.
After revealing Ruby’s true nature as a Kraken, she gradually discovers more about her family history. This includes knowing that she has a grandmother, a.k.a. Grandmamah (Jane Fonda), who’s been living in the ocean, ruling the underwater world. The movie also introduced a redhead It girl, Chelsea Van Der Zee (Annie Murphy), Ruby’s new classmate with a mysterious agenda.
The introduction of a good, teenage Kraken is a nice touch. But the overall story feels like I’m watching a retread of ‘Luca’ meets ‘Turning Red.’ Instead of an Italian sea-monster boy in ‘Luca,’ we have an American female Kraken teenager. Both ‘Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken’ and ‘Turning Red’ share the near-identical plot and themes but with a few tweaks here and there.
It deals with a teenager’s common plight of facing social awkwardness, anxiety, and puberty in a coming-of-age story mold. But unlike ‘Turning Red,’ these themes are executed in a superficial manner since the movie isn’t interested in delving deeper into Ruby’s problems.
This, in turn, makes the surface-level storytelling approach emotionally hollow. It was a waste of opportunity, considering the story’s multiple potentials that DeMicco and Pearl could have done better here. For instance, the mother-daughter conflict between Collette’s Agatha and Ruby lacks dramatic tension.
The initial setup about Ruby trying to overcome her fear to ask Connor to prom feels more like a placeholder for the story to move on quickly with her subsequent reveal as a monstrous Kraken after exposing herself underwater. This is especially true with Connor gone missing in action or, should I say, washed away for the bulk of the movie.
Then, there’s Ruby’s discovery about her grandmother that she never knew she had in the first place. And while I enjoy Jane Fonda’s performance, who clearly has a field day playing the dominating grandmother, the story is perfunctorily told that simply comes and goes.
Even if ‘Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken’ is intended for us to sit back and enjoy the ride as it is, the movie still can’t escape from its mediocrity. The humor mostly misses the mark, and there’s an awkwardly misplaced needle drop playing Christopher Cross’s otherwise 1980s pop classic ‘Ride Like the Wind.’ The Kraken-related action moments are just visual noises with neither the dramatic nor emotional flair that makes me root for Ruby as she battles the ultimate evil in the climactic finale.
Still, the movie isn’t entirely treading murky waters. The story’s subversive twist on ‘The Little Mermaid’ later in the movie is a wickedly fun addition that you have to see for yourself. The animation looks bright and colorful.
The humanlike-Kraken design, particularly the turtleneck-wearing Ruby Gillman, boasts a cutesy look with navy-blue shoulder-length hair, a lanky build, and pectoral fins-like ears. Lana Condor delivers a decent voice performance as the titular teenage Kraken, while Toni Collette does what she can in her otherwise underwritten supporting turn as Ruby’s overprotective mother.