Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken (United States, 2023)

June 30, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken Poster

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is one of the most inconsequential big-screen cartoons to reach theaters this year. It’s also one of the most disappointing releases to come from Dreamworks Animation, the studio responsible for such beloved modern classics as Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon. Although the movie has the capacity to engage and entertain young children, its bland storyline and cut-rate animation won’t impress many adults. This is a classic case of an animated film being targeted exclusively at younger viewers without much consideration about keeping parents from falling asleep.

Ruby Gillman feels like it was cobbled together from other, better animated motion pictures. The messages are standard Kids Fare 101 – be true to yourself and people should be valued for their deeds, not how they look. Pick just about any animated film and you’ll find something in Ruby Gillman that has been borrowed. And inspirations don’t include only the obvious ones; huge chunks have been lifted from Pixar’s 2021 Luca (which in turn took elements from The Little Mermaid and Shrek) and 2022’s Turning Red.

The action takes place in and around Oceanside, the town where high school freshman Ruby Gillman (Lana Condor) lives. Although Ruby desires to be just like any other teenage girl, the truth is that she’s a kraken in human form. She’s able to “blend in” provided that she stays away from water. One touch of the sea will cause her true nature to come out. This becomes an issue because the prom – a social event she doesn’t want to miss – is being held on a boat. Despite pleading, Ruby is unable to convince her mother, Agatha (Toni Collette), that attending the prom is good idea. Ruby’s desire for anonymity is destroyed when her crush and would-be prom date, Connor (Jaboukie Young-White) takes a tumble into the ocean. When Ruby jumps in to save him, she transforms into a kraken. It takes the effort of her supportive family to calm her down but the incident causes her to run away and seek out Grandmamah (Jane Fonda), the Queen of the Seven Seas, to learn more about her powers. She later develops a friendship with Chelsea Van Der Zee (Annie Murphy), a mermaid in disguise (a redhead with white skin, incidentally) who is masquerading as a popular new high school student. But Chelsea’s motivations for befriending Ruby aren’t pure. She intends to use the kraken to obtain a talisman that will allow her to become an Ursula-like ruler and destroyer.

At a time when seemingly every new animated release seeks a way to one-up its contemporaries, Ruby Gillman opts instead for a “retro” aesthetic that is cheaper both in terms of cost and visual impact. The animation looks more like what one might expect from a high-end television show than a major motion picture. No imagery rivets the attention or captivates the imagination. The underwater scenes are fine but undistinguished. Pixar may have fallen upon hard times lately but if one was to compare the Disney subsidiary’s latest, Elemental, with Ruby Gillman on a purely technical level, there’s a vast gulf to be breached. Ruby Gillman’s voice acting is adequate with Lana Condor doing a solid job as Ruby and the rest of the cast turning in workmanlike performances.

Whether the movie works likely depends on the audience. This isn’t really a “family film” in the sense of offering equal entertainment to viewers of all ages. However, for the under-10 crowd, it’s a perfectly reasonable way to kill 90 minutes. The movie is colorful, fast-moving, and filled with the kind of pointless-but-energetic action sequences that captivate young kids. Once it reaches streaming, Ruby Gillman will likely find a wide audience of willing children. Therein lies its value – one could argue that it functions better as a babysitter than a motion picture.

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken (United States, 2023)

Director: Kirk DeMicco
Cast: Lana Condor, Toni Collette, Annie Murphy, Colman Domingo, Jane Fonda
Screenplay: Pam Brady, Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi
Music: Stephanie Economou
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:31
U.S. Release Date: 2023-06-30
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Animated
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1