Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken (2023)

by - June 30th, 2023 - Movie Reviews


Colorful Ruby Gillman is an Animated Saturday Morning Throwback

Ruby Gillman (voiced by Lana Condor) is your typical 16-year-old attending Oceanside High. She’s got a gaggle of close friends: Margot (Liza Koshy), Bliss (Ramona Young), and Trevin (Eduardo Franco). She’s an accomplished mathlete and is successfully tutoring her secret crush Connor (Jaboukie Young-White) to straight A’s. She acts like she’s above going to Junior Prom but actually longs to attend (hopefully with Connor as her date).

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken (2023) | PHOTO: DreamWorks

It’s normal, everyday stuff, but there’s one major problem: Ruby is a kraken. Her devoted mother Agatha (Toni Collette) and steadfast father Arthur (Colman Domingo) left their underwater home 15 years ago and decided to raise their family on dry land, ordering Ruby and her younger brother Sam (Blue Chapman) to never dip a single toe in the ocean if they know what’s good for them.

DreamWorks’ Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken plays like the first few episodes of a 1980s Saturday morning cartoon. I could almost see where each 20-minute “segment” would have ended and where the next one would have begun, the big narrative moments conveniently broken up in a neat, four-act structure complete with a beginning, middle, and an end. Characters are introduced quickly and cleanly, the obstacles are clearly outlined, and the delineation between hero and villain is plainly obvious (to the viewer, not so much to the protagonist, which is as it should be).

Needless to say, younger viewers are likely to love this film. It’s got a plucky heroine who’s easy to relate to, lots of crisp action and an overabundance of phantasmagoric colors, comedy that rarely — if ever — attempts to sail over a kid’s head and toward the adults, and a tidy ending that sets up ongoing stories involving every member of the Gillman family, as well as all of Ruby’s besties (and Connor, too, of course). These are all good things.

Director Kirk DeMicco is best known for The Croods and Vivo, and this film fits comfortably alongside both animated features in regard to their tone, cohesion, and general comedic sensibilities. Co-director Faryn Pearl was a storyboard artist for Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power series and worked on Trolls World Tour and The Croods: A New Age, so she also fits right in.

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that Pam Brady’s original story had some rougher, more Shrek-like edges in its original form. She’s best known for working with Trey Parker and Matt Stone on South Park: Bigger, Larger & Uncut and Team America; World Police, and there’s obviously nothing as uncouth or as politically incorrect happening here. DeMicco and the rest of the screenwriting team play things safe. Even the stuff that could be remotely construed as inappropriate is so watered down that I imagine that easily triggered adult nincompoops won’t even notice when something a bit vulgarly juvenile takes place.

The vocal cast is excellent, Condor and Collette in particular. They have a naturalistic give-and-take that’s lovely, and the mother-daughter dynamic between them is entirely genuine. Most of the best scenes revolve around their attempts to communicate and their mutual failure to find ways to put the right words together to form a coherent sentence. Kids will connect to all of this. Parents, too.

A well-cast Jane Fonda is a delight as Ruby’s Grandmamah, the gigantic kraken ruler of the seven seas, who’s been patiently waiting for her granddaughter to come calling and (hopefully) accept her royal duty. Will Forte sounds like he’s having an unhinged blast portraying the one-legged, kraken-obsessed sea captain Gordon Lighthouse, while Sam Richardson pops up as Agatha’s eccentrically goofy brother Brill and makes the most of every precious second. Annie Murphy also makes a lasting impression as Oceanside High’s egocentric, red-headed “new girl,” Chelsea Van Der Zee, and I’m certain any comparisons to a 1989 animated under-the-sea Disney heroine who longed to be a part of the human world are entirely coincidental (not).

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken (2023) | PHOTO: DreamWorks

Look: Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken was not made for me. At least, not the “me” of today. If I were seven or eight years old, I’m sure this colorfully obnoxious adventure would have thrilled me senseless. DeMicco’s slight but still fun film never talks down to its intended audience. Better, it doesn’t take them for granted. The director and his creative team have put together a coming-of-age spectacle kids will almost certainly love and one that won’t cause pain to adults taking it in alongside their pintsized charges.

I can think of worse ways to spend 90 minutes. And if that family outing happens to be during a Saturday morning matinee? That just makes it all the better.

– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle

Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)

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