Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here

At my Sunday afternoon screening of Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken (2023) there was a haggard young woman sitting directly in front of me, who seemed to be responsible for about eight rambunctious boys who (when they stayed in their seats, which was rarely) occupied most of the row in front of her. The boys were all about 10, and I assumed the woman was probably mother to one of them, and acting in loco parentis to the rest. Occasionally this woman would have to get up and hissingly scold one or more of the children—at one point one of them was dancing with a popcorn bucket on his head like a helmet—or take one outside for a more serious talking-to. In between these duties, however, this woman would sag into her seat resignedly—or sometimes, for novelty, stretch out on the carpeted stairs—and text with someone on the blindingly white screen of her phone. At no point, as far as I could tell, did her eyes stray to the movie screen.

Normally, the texting alone, in a darkened movie theater, would make me apoplectic and profanely hostile—but this woman looked tired, and frazzled, and understandably ready to blow. Besides, I was a solitary middle-aged man at a movie called Ruby Gillman, Teenage Krakenwhich kind of made me feel like a guest at someone else's party. I ended up just quietly moving to the back of the mercifully uncrowded theater.

Why am I telling you this? Well, for one reason, I don't have much to say about Ruby Gillman, Teenage Krakenbut I've committed to writing about everything I see this summer, so I thought I might as well write about this.

But there's another, related reason I bring it up. I think this woman was using Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken more or less as it was intended to be used, and engaging it with only slightly less attention than it deserved. There are children's films that exist to delight and enrich, to educate and edify. Then there are children's films that exist solely to make a buck off overstretched parents who need to park their kids in front of something and take a goddamned break for 90 minutes. (Two whole hours, with previews!)

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is the second kind of movie. It's not bad—by which, to be clear, I do not mean it's goodIt just is. I will dutifully say more, and you are welcome to read further, but that's my real review of Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken right there: it is a thing that exists. Of all the things that exist this summer, Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken is inarguably one of them.

Since we live in an age when multiplexes are dominated by existing IP, I had naively assumed something called Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken must be based on a beloved series of children's books of which I was simply unaware. (For all I knew there was an entire classic canon of sea-creature themed coming of age books for girls: Scylla of Ingleside? A Winkle in Brine? Are You There, Scrod? It's Me, Mackerel?) But no, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken turns out to be an original concept from Dreamworks Animation, written by Pam Brady (Team America: World Police) and directed by Kirk DeMicco (The Croods).

So maybe I expected too much. Beloved children's books, after all, are usually beloved for a reason. I still remember the surprised delight I took—during my last summer movie marathon in 2017—in discovering the anarchic pleasures of Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. (To this day I remain a little disappointed there has been no Second Epic Movie.)

Few such pleasures await the viewer of Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken. It turns out to be the story of—stop me if you've heard this one—a teenage kraken named Ruby Gillman (Lana Condor). Ruby's kraken parents—for reasons that are initially unclear, but which will be revealed to be only slightly less unclear—choose to live on land disguised as humans, in the oceanside community of Oceanside. Ruby attends human high-school, where she is a Mathlete, and maintains a tight group of counter-culture friends. (The fact that Ruby is blue and has fins where her ears should be doesn't seem to trouble any of the humans. "I'm Canadian," Ruby tells them, and they seem to accept this explanation.) Ruby also has a crush on a cute boy named Connor (Jaboukie Young-White), whom she would like to ask to their upcoming prom.

There's just one problem: the prom is on a boat, and Ruby's mother (Toni Collette) has made Ruby promise never to go near the water. But of course, circumstances arise where Ruby does end up going in the water, and discovers the reason for her mother's warning: sea water makes Ruby turn into a giant kraken. Soon, she is shambling around Oceanside on her tentacles like a kaiju, and reuniting underwater with her estranged grandmother Grandmamah (Jane Fonda), the Warrior Queen of the Seven Seas, who wants Ruby to assume her rightful place as the Giant Kraken Princess.

Queen Grandmamah and Princess Ruby address their undersea subjects in RUBY GILLAN TEENAGE KRAKEN

(I can't even tell you how much trouble I had wrapping my head around this family secret as a plot device. Ruby knew she was a kraken, and that her whole family were kraken. But she didn't know she was a giant kraken: that's the big, mind-blowing reveal. Did she not know about giant kraken—which is the only kind most people have heard of—or did she just think her family were from a line of small ones? I feel like Mom could have been a little more forthcoming, and a child as intelligent as Ruby should have asked more questions by the age of 15.)

Further shenanigans follow, involving a long-standing feud between the noble kraken and the evil mermaids, the retrieval of an all-powerful trident, and an Ahab-like kraken-obsessed fisherman named Gordon Lighthouse (Will Forte). And it's all…okay. The story is formulaic and insubstantial, but it's roughly story-shaped and occasionally amusing. The animation is doing nothing interesting, but it's bright and colorful and competent. The characters are underwritten—their "arcs" barely curve in any way perceptible to the naked eye—but it's nice to see a female protagonist, and the film has decent representation throughout.

Surely, the prime directive for children's films is the same as it is for doctors: first, do no harm. And Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is, admittedly, harmless. I'm just not sure it does anyone any good. The best movies of this kind work as metaphors for universal childhood experiences, but I don't think anything about Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken qualifies. (Yes, the teenage girl who turns into a monster can work as a metaphor for teenage girls who feel like a monster—witness the infinitely superior Turning Red from Pixar just last year—and it's a nice touch that the cute, pretty, popular mermaids turn out to be evil. But Ruby Gillman doesn't do much with these ideas beyond checking them off a list.) Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is not a message about acceptance. (Everyone accepts everything surprisingly easily.) It's not an inspirational story about a young girl claiming her power and becoming a hero. (Ruby is a decent enough kid, but honestly she's kind of a dumb-ass for about 85 of the film's 90 minutes.) It's neither a silly fun romp (not silly or funny enough) nor a great exciting adventure (not serious enough).

So what's Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken about? It's about 90 minutes. And parents in search of something to occupy their children for 90 minutes could find much better options, ones that might actually keep the kids in their seats and entertain adults more than their phones. (For a truly great animated movie about sea monsters with a strong female protagonist, I highly recommend the Oscar-nominated but criminally under-seen The Sea Beast, which you can watch on Netflix. I bet you won't want to text through it, but at the very least—watching at home—no one will mind if you do.)

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2 thoughts on “RUBY GILLMAN, TEENAGE KRAKEN (2023)”

  1. "Are You There, Scrod? It's Me, Mackerel?" This comment is, I am sure, the best thing to come from this movie. Thanks, Michael – I will skip this one and watch the Sea Beast.

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