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Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken review: Animated coming-of-ager isn’t a patch on Turning Red

Both films are energetic journeys through female adolescence, stuffed with metaphors for puberty, only ‘Turning Red’ does it more elegantly

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 29 June 2023 15:11 BST
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Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken Trailer 2

The hero of DreamWorks Animation’s latest, the muddled Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, is a 16-year-old girl like any other. That is, of course, if you don’t count the fact she’s bright blue. Or that she has tiny gills where her ears should be. Her family’s from Canada, you see – or, at least, that’s the excuse every one of the Gillmans’s friends, neighbours, and colleagues seems comfortable with. Voiced by To All the Boys’s instantly likeable breakout Lana Condor, Ruby is a clumsy mathlete desperate to blend in.

Her mother, Agatha (Toni Collette), has always warned her to stay away from the ocean (despite them actively choosing to live in a seaside town). Soon, she finds out why: if she dips even a single toe into the Atlantic Ocean, she’ll turn into a Kraken the size of a drive-thru McDonald’s. That only the Gillman women can transform into gigantic Krakens means there are obvious parallels to Pixar's Turning Red. Both films are energetic journeys through female adolescence, stuffed with metaphors for puberty, only Turning Red, with its deployment of a giant red panda, does it more elegantly.

Her debilitating crush on local skater boy Connor (Jaboukie Young-White) comes under threat when Ruby saves him from a watery grave, only for new-girl-on-the-block and actual mermaid Chelsea Van Der Zee (Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy) to take all the credit. Murphy’s vocal-fried performance is pure wolf in “Omg, I love your shoes” clothing. Could this be another wry, Shrek-aligned takedown of Ariel and her Disney cohorts? Or is it a more sympathetic look at the painful insecurities that create the most manipulative of mean girls? It’s neither, really. Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken fails to see its own potential – it’s never quite sharp enough to work as a parody, nor sincere enough to make its adolescent insecurities relatable.

Ruby meets her estranged Grandmamah (Jane Fonda) and immediately becomes embroiled in an ancient between power-hungry, deep-sea leviathans. She realises, inevitably, that the only way to bring peace is to seek out a magical doodah that lies on the other side of an even more magical portal. Whatever dramatic tension there was dissolves into what can only be described as “a serviceable distraction” at best. It’s colourful, certainly, and packed with an aggressive amount of pop-accompanied montages. But that’s about it.

It’s been argued, to the point of near-exhaustion, that Sony’s Spider-Verse films elevated audience expectations when it came to what mainstream animation can and should be. But even DreamWorks’s last film, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, proved that each of these studios has the capability to deliver its own brand of exhilarating spectacle balanced by thoughtful emotion. While there’s some of the former here – the film’s underwater effects are a hundred fathoms more convincing than those of Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid – the latter feels stifled in odd and frustrating ways.

A sweet trio of Ruby’s friends (voiced by Liza Koshy, Ramona Young, and Eduardo Franco) are introduced front and centre, only to be left abandoned at the shoreline for the vast majority of the film’s action. Her relationship with her mother is never given the spotlight. Neither, really, is her nascent bond with Grandmamah – despite how much Fonda clearly relished her time in the recording booth. So, by the time we reach the film’s climax, as the tentacles start whipping around with abandon, it’s hard to remember where any of this started. Mark this vessel down as lost at sea.

Dir: Kirk DeMicco. Starring: Lana Condor, Toni Collette, Annie Murphy, Colman Domingo, Jaboukie Young-White, Liza Koshy, Sam Richardson, Jane Fonda. PG, 91 minutes.

‘Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken’ is in cinemas from 30 June

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