Speaking at his Annecy Master Class earlier this month, Academy Award-winner Guillermo del Toro bemoaned what he saw as the ills afflicting contemporary (mostly American) animation. He was particularly despondent about how character emotions in much of commercial animation have been “codified into a sort of teenage rom-com, almost emoji-style behavior,” calling it “emotional pornography.” Del Toro’s words kept echoing in my head as I watched DreamWorks’ latest animated offering, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, a perfectly adequate fable about a teen girl who discovers she’s a descendant of a line of warrior queen krakens. It’s a discovery that throws the final days of her high school experience in the fictional town of Oceanside into disarray.
For despite being a blue-haired, blue-skinned, gill-having, non-human girl, Ruby (Lana Condor), like the rest of her family, spends her days passing as human. That mostly requires hiding her gills with a turtleneck, standing up straight as if she has a spine, and warding off suspicions by claiming that the Gillmans come from, uh, Canada. Fifteen years in at Oceanside and that’s clearly worked for Flo and Arthur Gillman (Toni Collette and Colman Domingo), who are nevertheless quite cagey about why it is their kraken family now lives ashore. It all reeks of a broad metaphor about going through changes as a teenage girl that structures much of the film. Said metaphor is set in motion when Ruby dives into the ocean for the first time to save her crush from drowning after a promposal goes hilariously wrong. It’s there that she grows to be a giant-sized kraken with three tentacles, as her own sense of alienation is made visible and unavoidable. How will she fit in with her friends at school now? How will she ever get Connor to go to prom with her? How will she ever lay claim to normalcy?
What follows is a rather straightforward tale about growing into one’s own. Set against a quirky mythic tale that involves a kraken queen (played by none other than Jane Fonda), a totally super duper cool new girl in school (played with gusto by Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy), and the increasingly fraught relationship between Ruby and her mother, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is amusing if altogether quite slight. The emotional resonance of the piece depends on well-worn tropes about “mother knows best” and “blending in to fit in is okay (until it’s not)” that feel particularly facile. That is especially the case when delivered in between plenty of exposition-heavy scenes (some of which use YouTube-like clips as helpful visual aids) as well as one too many music-driven montages (set to a number of not particularly memorable pop ditties). And that’s on top of the sassy sitcom rhythms of its dialogue. This is a world where Ruby calls Murphy’s Chelsea her “super sea girl bestie” and jokes with Connor (Jaboukie Young-White) that he’s her Alge-bae (or maybe her Alge-bro?) while talking about their math tutoring sessions. And, yes, there is a “release the kraken!”-style joke here, in case you were worried.
Which is to say, while there is plenty to enjoy here, the tone and tenor of this DreamWorks flick struggles to straddle the line between the kookiness of its premise (I mean, this family is called GILL-man, get it?) and the sincerity of its emotion (here’s where Fonda and Collette’s voice work does some serious heavy lifting). Visually, at least, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is a treat. Playing with the Play-Doh-like plasticity of the medium (even when it makes its titular creatures look, at times, like neon gummy-like Sea Monkeys), director Kirk DeMicco and co-director Faryn Pearl constantly find ways of making you wish you could pause to truly take in their immersive world-building. An early scene featuring a smorgasbord of promposals, for instance, may come close to overloading your senses but it nevertheless begs to be dissected frame by frame to savor every one of its jokes. One wishes such playful inventiveness was as evident in the film’s final climactic battle which can’t help but pale in comparison to the similarly staged scene in 1989’s The Little Mermaid (and not just because it also features a mermaid, a trident, a ship in peril, and a stormy backdrop).
Thus, enjoyable as it may be, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken never quite rises above its straightforward title and one-note sounding premise—which the film still spends an inordinate amount of time setting up and explaining. Whatever emotional heft the pic may aim to harness is lost amid glib jokes, overly complicated mythic lore, and ultimately, pat platitudes about embracing who you were always meant to be.
Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken opens in theaters on June 30