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Did you meet Ruby Gillman, the protagonist of the latest DreamWorks adventure, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, before: She’s a nerdy teenager (math is her favorite subject), who survives high school conflict with her close friends (they call themselves “the team”). She worries about the usual chores of adolescence, like inviting her crush to prom and evading her mother’s watchful gaze. Her parents adore her, but could bear to curb 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 by Spiderman, which would make a nice double bill with this film; Darby’s Darby and the dead; and Wei-Chen inside Chinese born in America), Ruby lives a double life. She cannot tell her friends about her that she is a squid-like creature who, legends say, destroys ships and their sailors. Her parents moved to Oceanside, a quaint waterside village, 15 years ago to live peacefully among humans. The Gillmans explain their slender 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 the water, blending in isn’t a problem at all.
Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken
Quite fascinating, even if not surprising.
Release date: Friday June 30th
Launch: Lana Condor, Toni Collette, Annie Murphy, Sam Richardson, Liz Koshy
Directors: Kirk DeMicco, Faryn Pearl (co-director)
Screenwriters: Pam Brady, Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi
Rated PG, 1 hour 30 minutes
The no-water rule puts Ruby in a tough spot as she desperately wants to go to prom, which this year is inconveniently hosted on a giant boat. In a dizzyingly efficient introductory montage, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken introduces us to the events of Oceanside, the details of the daily life of the Gillmans and the depth of Ruby’s dilemma. Her mother, Agatha (Toni Collette), rejects her meticulously constructed proposal video, and Ruby learns that her friends – Margot (Liza Koshy), Bliss (Ramona Young) and Trevin (Eduardo Franco) – will still be attending the prom. year. So much for team solidarity.
Directed by Kirk DeMicco, co-directed by Faryn Pearl, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken he charms and woos in a predictable way. That’s not to say the film is bad – at a sweet 90 minutes, who can really complain? — but its slower moments might make your mind wander to other, more evocative versions of its familiar tale. Ruby Gillmann uses the physical differences and family drama of the teenage protagonist to weave a narrative about finding one’s voice and forging new paths amidst intergenerational conflict. This last theme could not help but remind me Strange world, another film about a struggling teenager 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’s and grandfather’s dreams. Should he inherit his father’s farm or discover unknown lands?
Ruby is in a similar situation. After a “proposal” from her to her crush Connor (voiced by Young-White) goes awry, Ruby is forced to break her no mother water rule. Leaping into the ocean activates a dormant power within the young kraken, which, while saving her crush from drowning, grows exponentially. His gargantuan size not only alarms Oceanside residents; she forces her mother, too, to tell Ruby the truth about her: the sixteen-year-old comes from a lineage of warrior krakens, who, despite their fearsome reputation, have protected the sea for centuries.
Ruby is next in line for the throne and her grandmother (Jane Fonda) is awaiting her return. Grandmamah, as she likes to be called, wants Ruby to take her place as queen. (This plot point is reminiscent of the choices faced by The Princess Diaries‘ Mia Thermopolis.) Agatha would prefer her daughter to live a relatively normal life, away from ocean dangers.
It’s not hard to predict what will happen next Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken. These revelations shock the teenager and damage his relationship with his mother. What other, to use Agatha’s own phrase, “small omissions” are there? How can the teenager trust anyone now?
The rebellion follows. Ruby searches for answers to her family heritage and forms an unlikely bond with new Oceanside resident Chelsea Van Der Zee (Annie Murphy). Mistakes are made, battles are fought, and ties are inevitably broken and, of course, re-established.
After a hectic first half, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken it flows at a steady pace, hitting the familiar beats of its conventional storyline. There’s strength in the animation, which includes some imaginative renderings of aquatic life, including a majestic battle scene towards the end of the film. And it’s hard to beat the chemistry of the voice cast, which includes Colman Domingo, Sam Richardson and Will Forte.
However, these elements aren’t enough to elevate the film to truly impressive heights. The screenplay, by Pam Brady, Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi, does a great job commenting on the quirks of modern life (a few gags about our impulse to live stream made me laugh), but it doesn’t delve deep enough into Ruby’s story – especially the strained relationship between her, her mother and grandmother – to anchor the film’s critical emotional twists. In the end, we feel like we’ve been granted narrative rewards that we didn’t have to earn.