Capsule Review: Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken (2023)

Last year, DreamWorks Animation was riding high with Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. It was one of the best animated features I have watched in 2022 and even among the greatest ones from the studio. Their latest animated feature, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken looks as if the studio continues its winning streak. It boasts an interesting hook: What if the otherwise fearsome sea monsters of Krakens turn out to be misunderstood creatures after all?

So, the Krakens in question revolved around the Gillman family (Toni Collette’s Agatha the mother, Colman Domingo’s Arthur the father and Blue Chapman’s Sam the younger brother), who live on the seaside of Oceanside. The protagonist, Ruby Gillman (voiced by Lana Condor) is a 16-year-old teenager who’s been hiding her true nature from everyone (read: humans). And she does so by simply obscuring her gills by wearing a turtleneck sweater. Even when someone, notably the suspicious sailor Gordon Lighthouse (Will Forte) is doubtful about the blue colour of her skin, Ruby just said she and her family are Canadians. We see her trying her best to live like a normal teenager blending in with her human classmates (Liza Koshy, Eduardo Franco and Ramona Young).

She also has a crush on Connor (Jaboukie Young-White) and they happen to share the same passion for math. Then, one day when she finally braved herself to ask Connor to prom, an unlikely accident happens: She transformed into a giant Kraken when she tries to save him underwater.

While it was a refreshing change of pace to feature a Kraken creature as a protagonist rather than an antagonist, the premise itself feels identical to last year’s Turning Red. Except for a few tweaks such as the latter centres on a female teenager who turns into a giant red panda, and staying calm is the only way to revert back to human form. For Ruby Gillman, her transformation takes place if she comes in contact with the ocean and it would take time for her to return to normal after resurfacing back to land.

Like the aforementioned Pixar movie, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken uses the fantastical premise and its protagonist to lay out its allegorical themes about teen angst, prejudice and inclusiveness. It’s mostly familiar stuff while the humour is a hit-or-miss affair. I can’t help but feels the overall generic screenplay — credited to Pam Brady, Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi — is being written using ChatGPT by inserting a few relevant keywords. It certainly lacks the heart and emotion needed to make it work.

If anything, the animation is vibrant and colourful. The movie moves briskly at 90 minutes while Lana Condor does a decent job voicing a frustrating teenager trying to live a normal life. Some of the supporting voice cast is worth mentioning here, namely Toni Collette as Ruby’s overprotective mother and Jane Fonda as Ruby’s stately grandmother. Co-directors Kirk DeMicco and Faryn Pearl did try to freshen up the otherwise predictable story by subverting our expectations of how we generally view the mermaids. It was a crafty twist on the otherwise familiar mythology that we have grown accustomed to. Too bad such a scene is few and far between.