DreamWorks Tries Turning Blue with the Adolescent Transformation Comedy Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken

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DreamWorks Tries Turning Blue with the Adolescent Transformation Comedy Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken

When DreamWorks Animation first arrived on the scene nearly a quarter-century ago, the company was clearly torn between high-mindedly shepherding American animation further into the dramatic ambition of ’90s Disney at its best, and gleefully thumbing its nose at the proprieties of the Mouse House. The latter, presumably a pet project of vengeance-minded DreamWorks impresario Jeffrey Katzenberg, sometimes involved less satire than attempting to undermine its competitor by beating them to market (see Antz, in theaters just before Disney/Pixar’s A Bug’s Life) or insouciantly riding their coattails when that wasn’t possible (see Shark Tale in the wake of Finding Nemo; just kidding, do not ever see Shark Tale). In the years since, DreamWorks has thankfully drifted away from direct rivalry with Disney – there are simply too many other big-studio animation houses that exist now, in part because of DreamWorks’ success – but there are still lingering traces of their erstwhile animosity. So as Disney celebrates its latest sorta-live-action redo from their library of beloved animated classics, DreamWorks has its own not-so-little mermaid serve as the not-so-secret bad guy of Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, an otherwise not-especially-satirical animated coming-of-age comedy.

Ruby (Lana Condor), by contrast with Ariels past and present, isn’t an angel-voiced princess of the sea. She’s a blue-skinned, noseless, suspiciously flexible and long-fingered teenager, inexplicably fitting in at her seaside high school with her family’s Coneheads-esque cover story that they’re simply Canadian. In reality, they’re a family of human-scaled kraken, who require proximity to the ocean but must also be careful not to actually fall in, lest they reveal their origins. Warned off by her high-achieving mother Agatha (Toni Collette), Ruby does her best to simply not be seen, though she has managed to make two close friends and tutor her crush Connor (Jaboukie Young-White) in math. Chelsea (Annie Murphy), on the other hand, floats into Ruby’s school as a transfer student with boundless confidence and an unmistakably Ariel-like shade of bright red hair. She’s the Little Mermaid as a living Bratz doll, and a marked contrast to Ruby’s more timid existence.

But when Ruby saves Connor from the briny depths during a promposal gone wrong, she discovers her true kraken powers, which are much greater than her family has ever told her. Tutored by her underwater-dwelling warrior-queen grandma (Jane Fonda), Ruby explores these newfound abilities and investigates a long-standing rivalry between krakens and mermaids. And just as Ruby engages in tween-friendly versions of both high school shenanigans and Aquaman-esque mythology, her movie keeps zipping back and forth between the tedious comfort of DreamWorks traditions and something freer of animated-franchise expectations. The movie, directed by Kirk DeMicco, is bookended by the usual opening here’s-the-deal-with-this-world narration and the usual closing dance party, while its animation has a buoyancy closer to what Sony routinely turns out. The kraken characters are living embodiments of old-school squash-and-stretch cartooning, and even the humans are pleasingly caricatured: Witness Will Forte as a grizzled sea captain, obsessed with defeating a real kraken.

Ultimately, though, the character animation and sprightly vocal performances can’t quite wriggle out of whatever formulas and secondhand story wreckage Ruby Gillman grabs to assemble its stop-and-go plotting. Some old habits must die hard; while Ruby was likely in production well before anyone involved had seen Pixar’s Turning Red, there’s an unavoidable comparison between two stories of mother-daughter conflict predicated on an inherited ability to turn into a large, unwieldy creature that could potentially cause panic among the normals. Intentionally imitative or not, the writing of Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken shrinks away from the piercing specificity of that Pixar project; the dialogue is busy with buzzwords (references to “catastrophizing,” therapy and panic attacks) and Joseph-Campbell-via-taglines nonsense (Ruby must decide whether to “answer the call”). Ruby herself is more an appealing design and a sympathetic idea than a fully-formed character.

The strange freedoms and contradictions and physical awkwardness of adolescence are all there in the animation, and turned into desperate simulacra by the rest of the film. Even that jab at The Little Mermaid doesn’t amount to much more than a wink and a smile. This is a cute kids’ movie whose target audience may eventually look back on it with affection – or maybe a little suspicion, for how easily it smooths over its teenage strife.

Director: Kirk DeMicco
Writer: Pam Brady, Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi
Starring: Lana Condor, Toni Collette, Annie Murphy, Jane Fonda, Sam Richardson, Colman Domingo, Will Forte, Jaboukie Young-White
Release Date: June 30, 2023

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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