It’s always a shame when a fairly enjoyable and original film doesn’t live up to its full potential, especially in the realm of family-friendly animation. Pixar’s recent offering Elemental proved this point with a warm heart and a cool concept, but less-than-stellar world-building. DreamWorks Animation’s Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken almost has the opposite problem. The seaside setting it imagines is appropriately fluid-feeling yet tactile, at times reminiscent of claymation. However, in its predictability, Ruby Gillman ends up being much less than the sum of its parts in an emotional sense.
That’s not to say that kids and families won’t enjoy it. The audience of kids and parents at my screening seemed engaged and delighted throughout. As an animation nerd, I was enjoying the film as well, up until the transition between its second and third acts. There’s a plot point there that I believe prevents the film from being closer to the pantheon of classic animated family films such as Lilo & Stitch or the How to Train Your Dragon series. Films like those take more time building character arcs. Their lead characters truly reach inward to overcome adversity and achieve their goals, so in essence children can really grow up with those stories as they themselves mature. I realize that not every film has to have these ideals in order to be great, but even while it’s moving much faster than some of its superior animated peers, Ruby Gillman palpably feels like it was reaching for something more and ultimately loses its nerve.
In the process of losing its nerve, I think it sends out a somewhat mixed message to kids. On the one hand, the film is about math-wiz kraken teen Ruby (voice of Lana Condor) learning to embrace and broadcast her kraken-ness and her intelligence, and so nicely teaches kids about the importance of individuality. On the other hand, the story point I alluded to earlier reinforces common tropes of competitiveness between kids that I was so hoping this film would swim away from. To outline that story point in detail would be to spoil a major part of the film, so I’ll adjourn this topic and hope I’ve made my point clear. I’ll continue on to a plot synopsis and discuss some of the many things I did like here, because even if it isn’t perfect, this is still a worthwhile experience for interested families.
Ruby and her family are krakens in hiding, passing as unique blue humans in the town of Oceanside (they amusingly refer to themselves as “Canadian”). The only thing Ruby and her little brother Sam (voice of Blue Chapman) don’t know is that their family are actually kraken royalty, and that females are always the monarchs. When her awkward prom-posal goes haywire, Ruby falls into the sea for the first time and meets her grandmother, affectionately called Grandmamah (voice of Jane Fonda), who informs her of her true heritage.
Ruby’s mother Agatha (voice of Toni Collette) would rather everyone keep up the charade. But once Ruby befriends Oceanside High’s popular new girl Chelsea Van Der Zee (voice of Annie Murphy), a mermaid who can switch appearances between human and sea creature, the two teens are practically inseparable and Ruby is off to the races discovering her kraken powers.
Although I grow weary of quick pop-music montages as a way of eliding exposition, I must admit watching Ruby gain confidence with Chelsea as a sort of spirit guide was incredibly fun. The design elements of the picture really shine in this section. Underwater sets are not rendered as realistically here as in Finding Nemo, however, they don’t need to be for a picture with this kind of bubbly aesthetic (forgive the pun). Oceanside, as I mentioned previously, feels lived-in and tangible in a way that’s fairly rare for computer animation. In some areas, it’s as if Chicken Run was set in a world meant to look like an exaggerated Venice. It helps that it’s populated by a handful of interesting characters, most notably and hilariously salty sailor Gordon Lighthouse (voice of Will Forte).
All things considered, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is a colorful, light and breezy family film that is also appropriate for older kids, considering the age of its protagonist. It’s no masterpiece, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed if you’re a parent looking for a little bit of kid-friendly counter-programming to the typical summer movie.| George Napper