Making a rousing splash, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken surfaces. The latest feature from DreamWorks Animation, this pleasant coming-of-age story follows a formulaic flow. Amusing with some solid comedic moments, it’s lazy filler that drags down, though never drowns, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken.
In the picturesque port of Oceanside lives the Gillman family. Sixteen-year-old Ruby dreams of nothing more than going to prom with her friends, especially since she feels it’ll help her fit in. From the start, the movie never hides the fact this is a family of krakens, passing as human. However, it isn’t until an accident forces Ruby to enter the ocean, breaking her parents’ one ironclad rule, that the truth emerges. Entangled in the deep, dangers and destiny are waiting to ensnare her.
At its heart, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is a standard coming-of-age film. The world outside high school isn’t anywhere in sight for this shy sophomore, and as a typical teen, her main frustration is her parents. Despite Ruby’s skillful power point presentation — a quirky and clever means of amusing exposition dump — they seem unable to appreciate the absolute importance of prom. Predictable as the plot may be, excellent voice acting by Lana Condor helps buoy Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken. Some fresh perspectives, shifting tropes more horizontally than vertically, but still positively also keep the film afloat.
Besides being a kraken, Ruby is wonderfully nerdy. It’s nice to see a film where a character knows being a mathlete doesn’t make her popular yet isn’t something to be at all ashamed of. Lana Condor does a marvelous job of bringing Ruby’s personality to life. She makes the character charmingly awkward, and there’s a real sense of sadness when the teenage kraken feels crushed. Condor sets a bar most of the cast lives up to.
Toni Colette does an equally stellar job as Ruby’s mother Agatha. As the story progresses, the motivations of her overprotective character become clearer. Colette ably brings a relatability to Agatha. When she calms her frightened daughter, it’s a real tearjerker, but perhaps more moving is the understandable desperation as she struggles to explain to Ruby the hazardous world she’s unwittingly entered. It’s something many parents will appreciate, and dialogue which children may not get now, but as they age it gives Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken a future depth. Fortunately, someone as skillful as Toni Colette is doing the voice.
Whether Sam Richardson as kookie Uncle Brill, Will Forte as the amusingly mad Gordon Lighthouse, or Colman Domingo as sweet dad Arthur Gillman, the rest of the cast hits a smooth comedy groove. Helping propel things are the quirky social misfits Ruby calls friends. Played by Liza Koshy, Ramona Young, and Eduardo Franco, each feels like a genuine person. I personally enjoyed the chronic gothic doomsaying of Ramona Young’s Bliss. However, Liza Koshy is a comedic treat as Ruby’s melodramatic best friend Margot. And Annie Murphy as Chelsea Van Der Zee shines by making her character so charmingly manipulative, audiences may be tempted to side with her for a split second.
The only downside is Jane Fonda as Grandmamah. Her voice carries a sense of royalty which as queen of the krakens she should have. Unfortunately, haughty grand dame is the only note Fonda seems able to play. Even when she’s supposed to come across as more understanding, opening up to the family she’s alienated, Grandmamah never leaves the emotional plane of condescending queen.
Still, the overall voice acting is a treat. Although there’s ample physical comedy, many jokes are all about dialogue delivery. Plus, there is a real attempt at serious emotions. Nothing that will overwhelm a young audience, but ones which give Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken complex morals. Despite being an old story — the overprotective parents who’ve hidden a magical destiny for the safety of their child — DreamWorks does an honest attempt to keep the pace slightly ahead of its predictability. Yet, there are no real surprises here. Still, the script by Pam Brady, Brian C. Brown, and Elliot DiGuiseppi does a good job of granting Ruby and Agatha a chance to hear each other out.
Animation is best when Ruby is in Oceanside. The town really feels like a living place with storybook appeal. In addition, Director Kirk DeMicco has guided a lot of visual gags into being. Not simply physical comedy but set pieces and background details which keep scenes from being singularly about main characters. Ruby walking the halls of her high school are especially well crafted, particularly as smart phone alerts go off. In real time, the audience watches social media spread word of kraken sightings, while an increasingly panicked Ruby races through the crowd.
Furthermore, the Gillman family is intriguingly designed. Human characters possess cartoonishly exaggerated, though not unappealing features, while the Gillman household harkens back to the days of rubber-hose animation. This allows for some eye-catching physical comedy, especially as they feign being human. However, it loses a bit of appeal when they embrace their kraken nature. Characters become almost too cartoonishly cutesy. Frankly, it feels like a cheap attempt to make something adorable in pursuit of future plushie sales.
The action scenes also don’t have much steam. Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken builds up epic potential with its titanic ocean beings then squanders it entirely. Worse, several of the more energetic moments are wasted on repetitious montages set to pop music. Granted, the songs don’t sound the same, but visually, it’s the ocean exploring montage followed by the friendship montage then empowerment practice montage. This gets yawn inducing mainly because it really seems like the same scenarios just with slightly altered scenes set to different music.
Overall, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is a pleasant, family friendly film. It has an admirable message for kids about the perils of growing up as well as encouraging parents to know when to let go. Some repetitive montages and weak action put an anchor around one tentacle. But it’s nothing Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken can’t rise above.