REVIEW: Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken (2023, dir. Kirk DeMicco)

Certificate: PG

Running Time: 91 mins

UK Distributor: Universal Pictures

WHO’S IN RUBY GILLMAN, TEENAGE KRAKEN?

Lana Condor, Toni Collette, Annie Murphy, Sam Richardson, Colman Domingo, Jaboukie Young-White, Liza Koshy, Blue Chapman, Jane Fonda, Will Forte, Ramona Young, Echo Kellum, Eduardo Franco, Nicole Byer

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Kirk DeMicco (director, writer), Pam Brady (writer), Kelly Cooney (producer), Stephanie Economou (composer), Michelle Mendenhall (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A teenager (Condor) learns that she is descended from a line of royal sea creatures…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON RUBY GILLMAN, TEENAGE KRAKEN?

In 1998, DreamWorks released their first animated feature Antz, only for it to be overshadowed by the similarly insect-themed A Bug’s Life over at Disney. The competitive rivalry between both studios neither stopped nor began there; co-founder and former Disney chief Jeffrey Katzenberg co-founded DreamWorks after a very public falling with then-CEO Michael Eisner, and since then Katzenberg has spearheaded numerous animated films designed by nature to compete with his former company, to varying degrees of success. On one end, DreamWorks gained popularity by poking fun at various fairy tale tropes that Disney popularised with the Shrek series, but on the other they received ridicule for releasing the critically mauled Shark Tale not too long after the much more successful fish story Finding Nemo.

There are hints of both ends in DreamWorks’ latest feature Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, which has Disney firmly in its sights but unfortunately not much else, for it is an unfocused and generally safe movie that offers many familiar themes and characters without going further than what’s expected.

The film follows awkward teenager Ruby Gillman (voiced by Lana Condor), who lives with her family in a portside town where her mother Agatha (Toni Collette) forbids her from ever going into the surrounding ocean – why, then, they elected to even live in such a place instead of somewhere far from the sea is anyone’s guess – but Ruby, being a teenager, soon defies her mother’s wishes and finds herself transforming into a giant kraken when she goes underneath the surface. Ruby eventually learns that she comes from a royal lineage of krakens who have been tasked with protecting the ocean from its many oppressors, including the vain and narcissistic mermaids who seek the power of the sea for themselves. She soon learns to harness her kraken powers from her Grandmamah (Jane Fonda), and even befriends a mermaid named Chelsea (Annie Murphy) – both of which, naturally, soon come to a head for the poor teenage kraken.

Unlike Antz or Shark Tale before it, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken doesn’t seem to be competing directly with any recent or upcoming Disney movies (unless you count the recent live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, which also deals with sea creatures and wondrous underwater visuals; hell, one of the main characters is designed almost exactly like the original animated version of Ariel, to where I’m pretty sure it’s not a coincidence). However, it does follow a lot of the same plot beats that Disney movies and even ones by other studios tend to stick with, which makes it incredibly predictable as to where things are going as soon as they are brought into the picture. You know exactly what kind of film it’s going to be from the moment it starts, including what lessons are going to be taught and where certain characters will end up by the end, and you more or less get what you expect, but the script doesn’t take enough chances with exploring newer and more dynamic themes, nor with its characters who mostly stay within their one designated personality trait, for it to resonate quite as well.

While it isn’t particularly strong in its writing, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken does gain some points for at least being visually interesting. As is often with a DreamWorks movie, the animation is bright and colourful, and is stylised in a way that is both odd and creative. Many characters have unique designs to them, whether it’s the flexible nature of various members of the Gillman family, or a normal human whose long face and bulbous eyes and nose make them look slightly less human than the actual kraken family, or a character introduced late in the film whose hair is impressively made out of the waves of the ocean. The underwater sequences are also filled with lots of beauty, with neon colouring lighting its daring desire to explore nearly every corner of these oceans, which at the very least should intrigue the younger viewers.

For most others, though, this is an uneven mix of a lot of ideas thrusted together to make a less-satisfying whole. For a while, the movie can’t decide if it wants to be something along the lines of Teen Wolf or The Princess Diaries, but soon throws a whole other bunch of loose plot strands into the mix to overwhelm and disorientate the viewer, all set to an inconsistent and out-of-place soundtrack that makes the random song choices from The Super Mario Bros Movie feel more natural. It wants to be so much like other things that it soon forgets to forge its own identity, thus leaving Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken all but stranded at sea, were it not for its rather dazzling animation.

In its efforts to double down on Disney’s usual formula, this DreamWorks feature ironically struggles to escape its competitor’s shadow once more.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is a dazzlingly animated but narratively messy new feature from DreamWorks, which sticks so closely to formula that it ends up being incredibly predictable and somewhat uneven.

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is now showing in cinemas nationwide

Click here to find showtimes near you!

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