Folks, I was really pulling for this one.
The How to Train Your Dragon trilogy is a masterpiece. The Kung Fu Panda trilogy did just as much with far less. I jumped off the Shrek franchise ages ago, but everyone really seemed to love Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.
DreamWorks Animation had proven themselves to be a bona fide powerhouse, but they did it with tentpole franchises that have run their course. By all appearances, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken had all the makings of another epic cornerstone of the DWA brand. Alas, it was not to be.
Maybe it’s because this was an animated film that had the misfortune to come out while Spider-Verse and Elemental were still in theaters. Maybe it suffered for being released day-and-date with Indiana Jones (though that appears unlikely). Maybe it had the grievous misfortune to be a coming-of-age tale about a rebellious undersea teenage girl while The Little Mermaid (2023) is still raking in cash.
In any case, Ruby Gillman made her big-screen debut to a critical drubbing and a box-office bombing. What went wrong? Let’s take a look.
We open with a voice-over monologue to explain that everything we ever thought we knew about the undersea world is wrong. Specifically, it’s the giant monstrous Kraken who are the sweet and gentle protectors of the ocean, while the gorgeous humanoid mermaids are treacherous all-consuming demons. Why the confusion? Well, the best explanation we ever get is that human beings are stupid and quick to judge based on superficial first impressions. We’ll come back to that.
Our premise begins with Agatha Gillman (Toni Collette), a Kraken woman who ran from the ocean to raise her family on dry land. The upshot is that Agatha is now a successful real estate agent, her husband (Arthur, voiced by Colman Domingo) is a respectable entrepreneur in his own right, the eponymous teenage Ruby (Lana Condor) is trying to get through high school, and her little brother (Sam, voiced by Blue Chapman) is, uh… yeah, we’d better leave him for later as well.
The bottom line is that the Gillmans have spent the past 15 years trying to pass themselves off as human, even though they’re blue and scaly invertebrates with four fingers on each hand, fins for ears, and gills on their necks. More importantly, even though the Gillmans have to stay close to the ocean by necessity, they’ve made it a point to never ever go into the ocean. Surprise surprise, this flimsy-ass facade finally comes undone when Ruby inevitably hits the ocean. Thus Ruby discovers what it really means to be a Kraken, all her mother’s lies come undone, and we’re off to the races.
So, what we’ve got here is a classic coming-of-age setup in which the parent figure keeps escalating the situation despite and directly because of her obsessive compulsion to try and control her daughter. We’ve also got a time-honored premise in which the protagonist starts out trying to conceal her true nature until she finally embraces her hidden talents and figures out who she really is.
Trouble is, Turning Red already covered pretty much all of this exact same territory last year and did it way better. Hell, Elemental covered a lot of this same territory, did it better, and it’s still in theaters now. Fuck, The Little Mermaid (2023) covered a lot of this same territory, did it better, it’s still in theaters, AND it has the aquatic overlay!
Moreover, Elemental had the immigrant angle, while Turning Red had the immigrant angle and went much deeper into the puberty theme in the bargain. And it’s not like these filmmakers couldn’t have used the “Krakens in disguise” premise as a metaphor for something more timely or specific. But no, all that Gillman can offer is some vague general platitude to the effect of “don’t cover up what makes you special, embrace your gifts and show the world who you really are,” without any particular racial or sexual identity factoring in. Nice try, but that’s not enough to pass muster anymore.
Getting back to the plot, so much of this movie is driven forward by Ruby’s indecision about who to trust. Why is she having such a hard time with that? Where do I even begin?
I may have mentioned earlier that the Gillmans are passing for human, even though they don’t look remotely human. If anyone asks, the Gillmans just say they’re Canadian, and that’s enough explanation for anyone as to why these people have blue skin and eight fingers. I’m totally serious, everyone actually buys that. The one minor exception being Cpt. Gordon Lighthouse (Will Forte), a crazy old coot with an obsession for hunting down sea monsters. And as soon as video clips of a Kraken hit social media, everyone is every bit as panicked and bloodthirsty to go kill the sea monster.
The point being that the humans are all idiots. They’re a stupid, paranoid, violent, gullible mob. Even Ruby’s closest friends (voiced by Liza Koshy, Eduardo Franco, and Ramona Young) are quick to hop on the bandwagon and call the Kraken an abomination that has to be hunted down before it kills everyone. And then at the end, they’re all “You should’ve told us, we’re always on your side, you can tell us anything.” Like, how do you suppose that conversation was going to go? Fuck off. I don’t even care if they die in the climax, they can all go fuck off.
Oh, and I suppose I should mention Connor (Jaboukie Young-White), who serves as Ruby’s love interest. Guy’s a nonentity, with a generic design, no impact on the plot, and no personality to speak of. That might’ve worked if this had been an unrequited crush and he didn’t even know that Ruby existed (again, Turning Red), but no, Connor and Ruby have been helping each other with their math homework for some time, they know and like each other, yet their chemistry is nil. Worthless.
But enough about the landlubbers, what about Ruby’s family? Well, we’ve got the aforementioned Arthur and Sam, and Agatha’s estranged brother Brill (Sam Richardson) pops in to meet his niece for the first time. All three of these loudmouthed knuckleheads are entirely worthless. They serve only as sounding boards for Agatha and Ruby while providing more obnoxious comic relief in a movie that already had an overabundance.
This brings us to Ruby’s mother and Grandmamah, the latter voiced by Jane Fonda. Here we have two sides of the same coin, with Agatha trying to force her daughter to stay on land and live as a human while Grandmamah wants Ruby to forsake the surface and stay underwater as a Kraken forever. The both of them refuse to hear anything about what Ruby herself wants to do or who she wants to be. So fuck ’em both.
That said, at least Grandmamah isn’t actively lying or hiding anything from Ruby. To the film’s credit, we’re never allowed to forget that if Agatha had been more honest and upfront with her daughter, none of this would’ve happened. The problem is that Agatha is never really made to repent for this mistake. This isn’t like The Little Mermaid, when King Triton (briefly) sacrificed himself to save Ariel from the mess he drove her to; and it isn’t like Turning Red, in which the parent figure’s shortcomings turned her into the Big Bad who threatened an entire city until her daughter had to come and beat her back.
With Agatha, we never really get that nadir. We never get that moment when she’s made to suffer for the world-shaking clusterfuck she directly contributed to. All we get is a last-minute apology that rings pathetically hollow.
I might add that Agatha gives numerous reasons for running away from the ocean and keeping everything a secret from her family, and none of those excuses make sense. Agatha says she’s fighting every day so her family has a safe and secure life, but she and her husband both appear to be successful in their work, nobody’s starving, there’s no sign of late payments on mortgage or rent… by all appearances, they seem to be fine. If they’re struggling to hold onto this life, I’m not seeing it (again, Elemental). Agatha seems terrified of all the monsters undersea, but the exposition we get shows that all those monsters were successfully kept in check at the time of Agatha’s departure — if anything, Agatha made the whole situation even WORSE by running away! The only explanation that makes any sense is that Agatha wanted to build her own life outside the oppressive control of her mother. Which means that their entire family — hell, the entire freaking planet! — was put in jeopardy because these two couldn’t set aside their differences. FUCK. THEM. BOTH.
The point being that Ruby is caught between two worlds, with nobody she can trust or relate to and nobody who could possibly understand her position. Enter Chelsea (Annie Murphy), the beautiful and popular new kid at school who’s quickly revealed to be a mermaid in disguise. She’s quick to befriend Ruby and the two bond over their shared experience as teens with undersea alter-egos… but there’s still the tiny little detail that Ruby and Chelsea are on opposing sides of an undersea conflict that’s been going for eons.
So, let me get this straight. Anyone who says our protagonist is a monster is wrong, anyone who says our antagonist is a monster is right, and this is supposed to be a movie speaking out against prejudice and fear of stereotypes. Take your double standards and fuck all the way outta here.
Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is a deeply unfortunate misfire. It doesn’t do anything novel or intelligent, but rehashes the old established playbook with more noise, more bright colors, more exaggerated movement, and fewer brain cells. This is the kind of shit I’d expect from Illumination, but from DreamWorks? Seriously, Comcast, what in the nine hells are you doing to your animation teams?!
It bears repeating (once more, with feeling) that there’s nothing in this movie that Turning Red didn’t already do and do far better. Even without that movie from just last year, there are too many other films out right now, in this lane, that are far superior. I was no fan of Elemental or The Little Mermaid (2023), but they were both better-crafted and more creative than this. Hell, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse handled so many of these same themes in a more competent manner. And if you’ve got Netflix, why the hell would you watch this instead of Nimona?
Try fucking harder, DreamWorks. We all know you’re so much better than this.