Audiences might bemoaning the lack of original thinking in movies these days – all those sequels, remakes and reboots! – but even new ideas can seem suddenly played out in the face of the horrific specter of parallel thinking. Consider everything from “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” to “Dante’s Peak” and “Volcano,” “Capote” and “Infamous” to “No Strings Attached” and “Friends with Benefits,” and these are just contemporary examples of the phenomenon . If you have an idea for a movie — hopefully, a good idea to boot — chances are, someone else does, too. And they might as well have it al exact same time.
This is the case with “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” by Kirk DeMicco and Faryn Pearl, which arrives in the wake (fins? Paws?) of other very similar animated adventures, such as Pixar’s superior “Turning Red” and the less thrilling film of the study “Luca”, both use monster imagery to explore puberty and coming of age. NO, literally monstrous: in “Turning Red”, the maturation of a young girl transforms her into a giant panda (adorable, terrifying), while “Luca” follows a couple of kids who discover they are both sea monsters (in sunny Italy, no less).
For DreamWorks-backed entry into the “whoa, puberty is crazy!” animated film Mad Libs arena, those ideas are mixed into something funny, sweet and all too familiar. This time, we follow a delightful young girl (voiced by winner Lana Condor) who can’t shake the feeling of being different, only to discover, on the eve of a key teenage experience, that she, Very much is (she is also a sea monster). And while this concept, by writers DeMicco, Pam Brady, Elliott DiGuiseppi and Brian C. Brown, might have sounded fresh five years ago, in 2023, it’s just another example of parallel thinking dooming even the cutest of ideas.
And “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” AND Cute.
DeMicco and Pearl open with a flashy performance, telling us that krakens, despite their bad reputation and terrifying name, are actually protectors of the ocean. Being a kraken? It’s a good thing! But that hasn’t stopped even the most lauded of krakens — like Ruby’s mom, Agatha (voiced by Toni Collette, in just one of many excellent voice castings) — from dragging her family to dry shores (like their small town of Oceanside) and keep everyone out of the ocean and away from their legacy of huge ass-kicking sea monsters.
Ruby (voiced by Condor) has always known she’s different — maybe her blue skin and gilled ears are a tip — but even she doesn’t know how different she is. It’s a tough load for any teenager to carry, but it’s especially hard for Ruby, who already feels torn between her love of order (she likes math and rules) and her lively, fun personality. she. While “Turning Red” has been explicitly coded to be about puberty and menstruation and “Luca” has been seen as a story about sexual and gender identity, “Ruby Gillman” flits between all of these possible readings. In short, it’s about discovering who you are (physically, sexually, mentally, emotionally) and harnessing the courage to accept it. A classic tale in sea monster form.
One thing Ruby has always understood: she can’t go into the ocean, ever. (So why did they move to Oceanside, you might ask? As Agatha tells us in one of the film’s smartest and funniest moments, they still need to stay moist, of course.) Ruby is fine with that request until Oceanside High goes ahead and plans their prom on a party boat, and all of Ruby’s best friends (rendered mostly in tropes: the wacky one, the goth one, the dude one) can’t wait to literally splash around on the luxury liner. But what about Ruby?
Before you can say “bout,” Ruby fell into the ocean trying to save her sweet crush Connor (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White) after he went drinking. It’s there that she discovers—well done with some colorful animation, fun character design, and a healthy dose of pop music—that it’s actually a massive kraken, and everything Agatha has told her is, well, kind of a huge lie.
Much like “Turning Red,” the true heart of “Ruby Gillman” lies in the complicated bond between mother and daughter, built on both well-meaning and utterly traumatic deception. And when news of Ruby’s transformation reaches both her grandmother (voiced by Jane Fonda) and the rest of the ocean’s many other denizens, that bond will be tested. Who else in the ocean, you might ask? His cute uncle Brill (voiced by Sam Richardson), who arrives at the Gillman house, along with the new hip girl in school Chelsea Van Der Zee (voiced by Annie Murphy), who is soon revealed to be an Ariel-esque mermaid who is thrilled have a new wet friend (Perhaps).
Partly spurred on by Chelsea and her instant popularity, but mostly spurred on by her own desire to break free, Ruby begins spending more time in the ocean (read: more time as a kraken), where Grandmamah teaches her much about their heritage and lineage. Kraken? Sure, there are many, but Granny, Agatha and Ruby are the only ones giant krakens, fierce fighters and beloved royals who are tasked with protecting the ocean from all things bad, including (dramatic pause) mermaids, who are the real monsters. Oh, so what about Chelsea?
Exposition and information dumps abound, but despite the seemingly overstuffed nature of the plot, “Ruby Gillman” skews a bit younger than similar cinematic options. She really soars (swims?) when she leans into the lightest, literally most colorful things, like when Ruby goes full kraken and explores a lush, bright ocean alongside her grandmother or new best enemy. Pop songs blare, montages whiz, and the water setting transforms into something bright and fresh (sorry, the new ‘Little Mermaid’), all setting the perfect stage for a warm and heartfelt story about acceptance of himself.
This may all sound familiar, and this is both comforting and disappointing. Children always need cute tales about the power of being themselves in a world not necessarily built to embrace differences (of all sizes, all kinds) and stories like “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” can do that, with much more fun . But why not get flashier, why not take more risks, why not get bigger and weirder, when that’s also the purpose of the story you’re telling? Audiences of all ages deserve those jumps, the bigger the better.
Universal Pictures will release “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” in theaters on Friday, June 30.