You’ve encountered Ruby Gillman, the protagonist of DreamWorks’ latest venture, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, before: She’s a nerdy teen (math is her favorite subject), who survives the cliquishness of high school with her close friends (they call themselves “the squad”). She frets about the usual affairs of adolescence, like asking her crush to prom and evading her mother’s watchful gaze. Her parents love her, but could stand to dial back their overprotective instincts. And, oh, Ruby has a big secret: She’s a kraken.
Like a host of supernatural creatures and people before her (Miles Morales of Spider-Man, which would make a pleasant double bill with this film; Darby of Darby and the Dead; and Wei-Chen in American Born Chinese), Ruby lives a double life. She can’t tell her friends that she’s a squid-like creature who, legends say, destroys ships and their sailors. Her parents moved to Oceanside, a quaint village by the water, 15 years ago to live peacefully among humans. The Gillmans explain their spindly bodies, blue-tinged skin and other differences by claiming Canadian roots. No one asks follow-up questions and, as long as they stay away from water, blending in is no problem at all.
Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken
The Bottom Line
Charming enough, even if it doesn’t wow.
The no-water rule puts Ruby in a tricky spot because she’s desperate to go to prom, which, inconveniently is hosted on a giant boat this year. In a giddy and efficient introductory montage, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken introduces us to the goings-on of Oceanside, the details of the Gillmans’ daily life and the depth of Ruby’s dilemma. Her mother, Agatha (Toni Collette), rejects her meticulously constructed proposal video, and Ruby learns her friends — Margot (Liza Koshy), Bliss (Ramona Young) and Trevin (Eduardo Franco) — are going to attend prom anyway. So much for squad solidarity.
Directed by Kirk DeMicco, with co-direction by Faryn Pearl, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken charms and woos in a predictable manner. This isn’t to say the film is bad — at a sweet 90 minutes, who can really complain? — but its slower moments might have your mind wandering to other, more evocative versions of its familiar tale. Ruby Gillman uses its teen protagonist’s physical differences and family drama to weave a narrative about finding your voice and charting new paths amid intergenerational conflict. The latter theme couldn’t help but remind me of Strange World, another film about a teen who struggles to fit in and whose parents don’t know how to let go. In that charming animated adventure, Ethan, voiced by Jaboukie Young-White, finds himself stuck between his father and grandfather’s dreams. Should he inherit the agribusiness his father cultivated or discover unknown lands?
Ruby is in a similar situation. After a “promposal” to her crush Connor (voiced by Young-White) goes awry, Ruby is forced to break her mother’s no-water rule. Jumping into the ocean activates a dormant power within the young kraken, who, while saving her crush from drowning, grows exponentially. Her giant size not only alarms the residents of Oceanside; it also forces her mother to tell Ruby the truth: The 16-year-old comes from a line of warrior krakens, who, despite their terrible reputations, have protected the sea for centuries.
Ruby is next in line for the throne, and her grandmother (Jane Fonda) has been waiting for her to return. Grandmamah, as she likes to be called, wants Ruby to take her place as queen. (This plot point recalls the choices faced by The Princess Diaries’ Mia Thermopolis.) Agatha would rather her daughter live a relatively normal life, away from oceanic dangers.
It’s not hard to predict what happens next in Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken. These revelations throw the teen for a loop and hurt her relationship with her mother. What other, to borrow a phrase from Agatha herself, “tiny omissions” are there? How can the teen trust anyone now?
Rebellion ensues. Ruby seeks out answers to her family legacy and forms an unlikely bond with Oceanside’s newest resident, Chelsea Van Der Zee (Annie Murphy). Mistakes are made, battles are fought and bonds are inevitably broken and, naturally, restored.
After an erratically paced first half, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken thrums along at a steady pace, hitting the familiar beats of its conventional plot. There’s strength in the animation, which includes some imaginative renderings of aquatic life, including one majestic battle scene near the film’s end. And it’s hard to beat the chemistry of the voice cast, which includes Colman Domingo, Sam Richardson and Will Forte.
Still, these elements aren’t enough to lift the film to truly impressive heights. The screenplay, by Pam Brady, Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi, does a fine job commenting on the quirks of modern life (a few gags about our impulse to livestream had me chuckling), but doesn’t dig deeply enough into Ruby’s story — especially the challenging relationship between herself, her mother and her grandmother — to anchor the film’s critical emotional turns. By the end, we feel like we’ve been granted narrative rewards that we didn’t have to earn.