This new DreamWorks Animation project fails to develop much of a personality or pulse.
It’s not easy being a teenager. It’s especially not easy being a teenager like the titular protagonist of Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken. As that title would suggest, Ruby Gillman (Lana Condor) is a Kraken living in a seaside town with her family. Her parents and younger brother seem to have no trouble assimilating to the broader world, while Ruby struggles. All she wants is to blend in as a normal human– albeit one with blue skin and no spine. However, to be an average teen, she’ll likely have to break some of her mom’s strict rules, namely, never going near the ocean.
After leaping into the water to save her crush from a moist demise, Ruby discovers that seawater seemingly unleashes all kinds of dormant superpowers for her, including growing to the size of a massive Kaiju. These revelations, not to mention much-needed training from Ruby’s grandmother (Jane Fonda), come just as glitzy new girl Chelsea (Annie Murphy) arrives at our hero’s school. The cocky redhead is a mermaid, the natural enemy of the Kraken. Despite this historical specist animosity, Chelsea insists she wants to be friends with Ruby. New superpowers, a strained mother/daughter dynamic, forbidden friendships. It really isn’t easy being a teenager.
Directed by Kirk DiMicco of Space Chimps fame, Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken harbors ambitions of filtering the works of John Hughes and Kelly Fremon Craig through the hyperactive comedy of Phil Lord & Chris Miller’s animated efforts. That’s intriguing on paper, but screenwriters Pam Brady, Brian C. Brown, and Elliott DiGuiseppi never come close to living up to their inspirations or making something cohesive in its own right. In other words, this is an animated feature that never quite gets its sea legs.
The biggest issue at play is that nearly everything on-screen isn’t so much bad as it is half-baked. Like many Illumination titles—The Secret Life of Pets and its sequel come to mind—Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken comes off like an outline for a full-length feature film. Seemingly major details, like the blossoming friendship between Chelsea and Ruby, breeze past the viewer in quick montages. An action-heavy third act that takes the proceedings from Lady Bird to Pacific Rim is especially egregious. Momentous events and character beats happen hurriedly, robbing the drama of any weight. Worst of all, the material focusing on the protagonist’s high school antics feels tacked on.
[T]his is an animated feature that never quite gets its sea legs.
Tragically, this production can’t even rely on its animation to pick up the slack from a messy screenplay. A pair of brief digressions into distinctive hand-drawn animation only reinforces the default nature of Ruby Gillman’s CG character designs and environments. Most noticeable are obvious shortcuts to keep the budget of this production down. For example, Ruby’s seaside town is covered in constant fog to minimize the presence of expensive exterior light. Meanwhile, the film realizes crowds of Krakens as barely detailed blobs in wide shots. When one’s mind wanders to these shortcomings instead of focusing on the gags or story, something has gone creatively awry.
Perhaps nothing better encapsulates the half-hearted approach to Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken than its needle drops. Utilizing a bunch of toe-tapping lady rock anthems could be a great way to inject energy into the coming-of-age story. But save for one opening track that sounds remarkably similar to Hoku’s “Perfect Day,” most of the tunes here are incredibly forgettable. They aren’t even imaginatively incorporated into various scenes.
Still, even with all these shortcomings, Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken avoids sinking to the depths of Shrek the Third among the worst DreamWorks Animation projects. The voice acting helps keep things largely amiable. Lana Condor and Toni Colette, especially, lend more emotional urgency to their characters than what exists on the page. A brief runtime and plenty of bright colors in costume and production design also help make it incredibly appealing for its apparent target demo, extremely young children.
Fortunately, the modern cinematic landscape has seen several exceptional new entries into the world of coming-of-age teenage movies, including this year’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Unfortunately for Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken, those films make this one’s paint-by-nature extra apparent. It’s not easy being a teenager, true. But it is an experience capable of yielding—and deserving of—more memorable material than this forgettable animated trifle.
Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken crashes upon the shores of movie theatres everywhere June 30.