Credit: Universal Pictures
Blockbuster Beat by Steven Warner Featured Film

Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken — Kirk DeMicco

July 5, 2023

As far as film titles go, Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken has to be one of the worst to swing out of Hollywood in many a moon. For starters, the filmmakers — or, as is inevitably the case, the studio — assume that large swaths of the moviegoing public know what a kraken even is. Okay, they probably do, but for the leviathan-ignorant, it’s a mythical sea monster with giant tentacles that it uses to wreak havoc on sailors and landlubbers alike. That this particular kraken is a teenager doesn’t add much more than a call for eye rolls. Then there is the matter of that name: objectively, Ruby Gillman sounds much more like a Palm Springs mayoral candidate than it does the moniker of a big-budget animated kids flick’s endearing protagonist. You buy insurance from a Ruby Gillman; you don’t race to your local movie theater when you see her name on the marquee. In fact, the film’s original title, Meet the Gilmans, is far more indicative of the highly derivative animated film affair that will meet audiences brave enough to plunk down their hard-earned cash for this bit of big squid energy — although that implies anyone has even heard of the movie, with Dreamworks Animation seemingly going out of its way to bury it in a big, shiny July 4th summer weekend coffin, its marketing campaign virtually nil and its appearance in theaters at all reeking of contractual obligation. 

The titular Ruby (Lana Condor) is indeed a teenage kraken, but as voiceover narration helpfully explains to us in the film’s opening moments, kraken are not vicious monsters, but instead humble and proud protectors of the sea. But Ruby doesn’t even know she’s a kraken. Living in a relatively small but bustling seaside town, Ruby has been raised to hide her true self, even though she is unclear as to who that self is. All she knows is that she is a sea creature of some sort, and her parents brought her to the surface fifteen years ago to live life as “humans” because they were being hunted by evil krakens. Ruby is blue, has fins where her ears should be, and no nose. Everyone at school looks entirely human, so the fact that Ruby and her family have been able to keep up this ruse by simply telling everyone they are from Canada speaks to the level of intelligence and humor the film is trading in, courtesy of director Kirk DeMicco and numerous other grown-ass adults. 

In all other regards, Ruby is your average teenage girl, desperately trying not to make a fool of herself on a daily basis, hanging with her besties, posting Instagram stories, and looking forward to the upcoming junior prom, which her mother won’t let her attend because it takes place on a boat, even though she is desperate to spend time with skater boi Connor (Jaboukie Young-White). Indeed, mom (Toni Collette) has never let Ruby swim in the ocean for vague reasons, although Ruby soon discovers the truth when a freak prom proposal accident involving Connor and a high-powered confetti gun — for the love of God, what are we doing? — sends her diving into the water to save a potential drowning, with Ruby ultimately growing to the size of several skyscrapers stacked on top of one another and destroying the school library and almost killing a woman in the process, which is oddly played for laughs. Mom ultimately comes clean: they are all krakens, and they left the ocean because Ruby’s grandmother (Jane Fonda) was controlling and favored going to battle in lieu of more peaceful means of settling underwater disagreements. Ruby sneaks off to meet her grandmother, and secretly trains with her to harness her special powers, because she wants to end the long-standing feud between mermaids and kraken, and from here there are roughly 47 more characters and plot lines introduced into this sub-90-minute film. 

Thematically, Ruby Gillman is just as overstuffed, with the filmmakers tackling everything from familial strife to bullying to xenophobia to teenage angst, and none in a way that might be viewed as thoughtful or insightful — the film just trots out a litany of dime-store platitudes about how growing up is tough, but isn’t family, too? It all feels like someone hit pulse on a mixture of Turning Red, Luca, and The Little Mermaid, seemingly under the impression that the good will earned by the likes of Disney and Pixar will automatically endear audiences to the sludge being served up here. At least those films had something (to varying degrees) akin to emotional authenticity; Ruby Gillman, meanwhile, is so busy and over-caffeinated that it can’t even manage to find the heart within its story, no matter how many times it clumsily tries. Even the animation is exhausting, a predictable combination of photorealistic backgrounds and rubbery-looking characters, its emphasis on day-glo purples, pinks, and blues numbing viewers into glassy-eyed indifference after only a few short minutes. The voice work is perfectly adequate, although Sam Richardson as a lovably goofy uncle gets MVP simply because he seems borderline invested in the proceedings — surprisingly high bar to clear here. More dire is how hard it is to tell who this was even made for, as its emphasis on high school and prom seems to suggest teenage girls as the intended audience, but the storytelling and characterization are so simplistic — and the filmmaking so manic — that young children seem a more suitable choice, though even they are bound to be bored by the absolute recycled nothingness at the film’s core. It seems that teenage krakens just don’t have a target demo.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 26

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