The latest effort from DreamWorks Animation doesn't seek to reinvent the wheel, but manages to charm in spite of its familiarity
Ruby Gillman (Lana Condor) is a sweet, awkward teen trying to make her way in the world. She’s a great student and proud mathlete and has a tight-knit group of friends, including the spirited Margot (Liza Koshy). Still, Ruby struggles to fit in, in part because she doesn’t look like any of her human pals. She’s a sea creature, gills and all – yet her overprotective mother, Agatha (Toni Colette), won’t let her anywhere near the water.
After a disastrous promposal that sends her crush Connor (Jaboukie Young-White) spiralling, Ruby discovers why – when she goes into the ocean, her true form is revealed. Ruby is actually a giant sea kraken, something that comes as quite a shock to this anxious teen. Made furious after she discovers her mother is aware of her kraken heritage, Ruby descends to the depths, where she meets her Grandmamah (Jane Fonda), who fills in the blanks; Ruby is destined to inherit the throne to the ocean and must help protect it against the “selfish, vain narcissists with the terrible hair” – mermaids that have been at war with krakens since the beginning.
Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is the latest from animation studio DreamWorks, and – as directed by Kirk DeMicco (The Croods) – it's a bright, vivid affair that cleverly investigates how social media plays into teenage anxiety. This is a sweet, breezy movie with an impressive array of performances at its core; especially great is Annie Murphy as the school’s new It girl – and secret mermaid – Chelsea.
Yet despite its charms, it's hard to shake the feeling that Ruby Gillman is something we’ve seen before. It’s a bit of a victim of bad timing, too, coming mere weeks after the release of The Little Mermaid. But it also bears an uncanny resemblance to last year’s Turning Red, a Pixar film also about a shy teen who has a strained relationship with her mother, hiding the fact she's prone to transform into a giant red panda. Ruby Gillman does just enough to distinguish itself from its Pixar counterpart, but it lacks much of the memorableness of Turning Red.
After seeing DreamWorks beginning to push the stylistic boundaries of animation last year with The Bad Guys and the remarkable Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, Ruby Gillman feels like a return to playing it safe. Visually, it's lovely; bright vivid colours and a charming cartoony look that has become the studio's bread and butter. Some scenes are particularly stunning – especially the stripped-back moment when Ruby embraces being a kraken for the first time. But lots is very predictable: montages to upbeat pop songs, a late villain twist, all the typical rises and falls we've come to expect.
While the conflict is very familiar, the story of a teenage girl finding herself and accepting what makes her different is dealt with beautifully. Ruby Gillman may not be reinventing the wheel, but sometimes the wheel is just fine as it is. This is a film bursting with charm and terrific performances. It’s perfect family entertainment, even if Ruby Gillman’s staying power is questionable.
Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is released in UK cinemas on 30 June.Where to watch