If you’re a regular reader, you know that I have a few default settings when it comes to how I judge movies. Like any human being I’m not always 100% consistent in my takes, as one, there are exceptions to every rule, and two, sometimes I just forget in the moment depending on how a film makes me feel. But for the most part, four decades of viewing have molded a set of basic qualitative opinions.
When it comes to the new Dreamworks animated story, Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken, three of them come into play. The first is that I will generally be more favorable or forgiving to a film that shows ambition rather than playing it safe. Even if in the end I like the more tried and true entry better, I still appreciate and remember the risky projects more in the long run. A spectacular gamble that doesn’t pay off is oftentimes far more distinct and noteworthy to me than a tame success. The second is that, setting aside the overall quality of the content, the corporate shenanigans that take place at the highest levels of media conglomerates sickens me, and therefore any attempt to call it out I will respect (especially if it also challenges the audience in the process). Third, I absolutely despise cynical cash grabs that basically demand you fork over your money without question, banking heavily on nostalgia and/or toxic fandom to win the box office. This is where franchise fatigue and remakes come into play.
In spite of its flaws — and it does have a good deal of them — the main reason Ruby Gillman succeeds for me is because it keys in on those instincts in ways that feel unique, even though by design they’re not. The film asks questions of its young target audience in hopes of triggering some critical thought, the animation and storytelling reach for something beyond the mundane, and most importantly, the pot shots it takes at Disney are the most direct challenges that the House of Mouse has seen in years.
Directed by Kirk DeMicco ( The Croods) and co-written by Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGiuseppi, and Pam Brady (the latter a longtime South Park veteran), the story begins with a fairly simple conflict, that of the titular teenage sea creature living in the human world (voiced by Lana Condor) trying to convince her overprotective mother Agatha (Toni Collette) to allow her to go to her high school prom, as well as working up the courage to ask out her crush, a popular boy named Connor (Jaboukie Young-White) who she tutors in math. If this was the entire film, it would still be kind of compelling, as Brady et al effectively translate the nerves and anxiety of adolescents in social situations. This is exacerbated by Ruby’s more extroverted friends, including goth girl Bliss (Ramona Young), gamer boy Trevin (Eduardo Franco), and the excitable Margot (Liza Koshy), who is more extra than the chewing gum of the same name. With Ruby being more passive and analytical than her peers, it can be hard to assert her wants and needs, especially when the group uses the phrase, “Squad Solidarity” as a means of selective loyalty. They’re not being mean, just mildly oblivious to their friend’s circumstances, which can be upsetting, but is perfectly normal.
This alone can be engaging, but obviously the core obstacle is Agatha, who made the decision to move their family out of the sea and into the nearby town of Oceanside, where they live with their identities secret, while still presenting as slightly gelatinous, blue members of regular society. Agatha works as a real estate agent, husband Arthur (Colman Domingo) is a hobbyist, and younger child Sam (Blue Chapman, I’m guessing cast for his appropriately colorful name alone) is a supportive but hyperactive typical little brother. Agatha has forbidden her children from going into the ocean, but won’t tell them why, only that it’s dangerous. As such, since the prom will be on a party boat, she repeatedly kiboshes Ruby’s attempts to win her over.
Things come to a head, however, when Ruby decides to disobey her mom and ask Connor out. He’s clearly just as into her as she is to him, but a mishap in the moment causes Connor to fall off a pier. Forcing herself to cast aside all of her fears and insecurities, Ruby jumps in to save him, and in the process, after exposing herself to seawater, she transforms into a giant kraken, complete with tentacles, extra limbs, and suction cup feelers. Terrified, she does what she can for Connor then flees, doing her best to hide despite her size and the amount of destruction she’s inadvertently caused.
The truth is forced out, particularly with the arrival of Uncle Brill (Sam Richardson, always a delight), alerted by a shockwave from Ruby’s metamorphosis. Ruby, along with her mother, are descendants of the Warrior Queen of the Seven Seas (Jane Fonda), and as female krakens of the royal line, only they have the ability — and by extension, the duty — to grow to giant size and maintain peace in the underwater depths. In addition to this unannounced angst, Ruby is confronted by a new transfer student named Chelsea (Annie Murphy), who is secretly a mermaid, and a local fisherman named Gordon Lighthouse (Will Forte) begins a mad hunt for the mythical mollusks.
As you can imagine, this is a lot to take in for any teenager, and the film handles Ruby’s emotional spiral quite well. There’s a wonderful contrast between her and Chelsea (whose design is an obvious reference to Disney’s animated Ariel as opposed to Ruby’s more plain-ish features), in that she just wants a normal life where she has fun with friends and dates her crush. She doesn’t want anything bigger, while Chelsea is intentionally over-the-top, and encourages Ruby to accept the privilege of her lineage and do whatever she wants.
Where the film really shines is in two major areas. One is the character design. Ruby and her family look NOTHING like regular humans. They’re blue, they have fin-like “ears” that stick out from their hair, which is basically wet kelp, and they have no noses, their gills noticeable on their necks even when not in use (which is why Ruby wears a turtleneck). Most importantly, being invertebrates, their movements are often wobbly and elastic, which Ruby notes is because they have to pretend to have spines.
This would be off-putting if not for some clever visual and dialogue touches to hand-wave the situation. Every reasonable observation of their differences is tossed off with an intentionally flimsy excuse. When people wonder about their coloration, they simply state that they’re from Canada, which is in no way an explanation, but it works because the average person won’t question it. The same goes for when Agatha is asked why she didn’t move the family further inland if she’s so afraid of her mother’s influence and the danger of the sea. “We needed to stay moist,” she says. That’s funny. On the surface (forgive the pun) it answers an obvious question in a way that will satisfy the youngest viewers who don’t need detailed lore, and for the older crowd it’s a nice bit of subtle meta commentary about nitpicking in general, as the film has an overarching theme about why we don’t call out other, more significant, plot contrivances.
But more to the point, outside of the Gillman family, basically all of the characters have unorthodox designs. Bliss and Trevin are tall string beans (with the latter being a bit more bulky), Margot is short with tons of accessories to go with her personality, and Connor’s hair is three times wider than he is ON BOTH SIDES OF HIS HEAD. The only traditional model in the film is Chelsea, and again, that’s on purpose as part of her ironically idealized persona.
Once we’re under the water, however, that’s where the animation work really steps it up. The giant krakens, as well as their enemies, have bioluminescence, which is just gorgeous. Not only does it heighten the color palette to an insane degree, it becomes an increasingly innovative way to light certain scenes, as Ruby’s brightness is tied to her emotional state, so she becomes a living dimmer switch based on whether she’s excited, happy, scared, or depressed. It’s really something special, particularly in the climactic scenes against the main villain, who contrasts their lighting with the darkness of their frame.
The second, and most crucial element, is in how this movie calls Disney on the carpet. As the Queen notes, the krakens have fought many enemies that have posed a danger to sea life as well as humans, but none are more deadly and vile than mermaids. Ruby notes that this can’t be true, because people love mermaids. “Of course they do,” Grandmamah replies, “people are stupid.”
That takes some serious brass ones, right there. Not only are you making a traditionally villainous creature the good guy, not only are you making a mythical race beloved by the modern world into the baddies — and designing your main one to look exactly like the most famous example in media — but you’re outright chastising the audience for buying into it. That is playing with fire, and in a lesser movie, it would be seen as petty at best and disastrous at worst.
But the thing is, this film takes the appropriate steps to show why someone like Ruby is worth rooting for while Chelsea isn’t (I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that she’s the villain; the film sets it up pretty obviously, though admirably they hide the full reveal until the third act in a way that would surprise the young children they’re targeting). Ruby is smart, kind, unassuming, and ultimately just wants a few simple joys out of life. When she learns of her royalty, it’s something she wants to initially reject, and then comes around to feeling like there’s a way to incorporate it into her day-to-day existence. She wants to date Connor, not rule the oceans. She’s far too young for that kind of burden. In essence, she’s a real teenager, despite being a fake human, with much lower stakes concerns than what the world-building would imply.
Contrast that with Chelsea. Even before we learn she’s a mermaid, she’s overly dramatic, desperate for attention, and something of a mean girl archetype. From the day she arrives on campus she’s got two hangers-on who even creepily follow her into the bathroom (one of them is a guy) and wait to be dismissed or assigned some menial task like carrying her backpack. She flaunts her style and beauty and walks with an unearned sense of entitlement. Even when she and Ruby start hanging out, she emphasizes how great it is to be “better” than everyone else. For the youngest kids in the audience, this is a good lesson in how looks can be deceiving, but on a more critical, meta level, it forces the thoughtful viewer to really consider why they glom onto certain forms of media over others.
Because let’s face it, Ariel was a brat. Think back. Really think back to the original Little Mermaid that we all know and love (and yes, I do still love it despite what I’m about to say). What’s the first exposure we have to Ariel? It’s when she doesn’t show up to her father’s ceremony because she’s out finding thingamabobs. She has no real motivation in plot or character to hunt for sunken sundries, or to become attracted to Prince Eric and suddenly want to become “part of that world.” She just… does, because that’s what the movie says she does. Meanwhile, she constantly disobeys her father, who while gruff is only looking out for her best interests, she protests that being 16 is old enough to make her own decisions, she makes a literal deal with the devil in Ursula, risking her own life and then her entire kingdom for her lady fish boner, and in the end… she’s given everything she wants with no consequences.
So why is she so beloved? Because she’s a Disney princess, and the way the company has always presented these characters, she’s inherently good and worthy of her lofty dreams, while everyone who stands in her way is bad. It’s simplistic storytelling, and it works, but in a vacuum you can kind of see that despite her charm, lovely singing voice, and seashell-covered boobies (I was seven and just starting to realize I liked them), she’s kind of a shitty person. And yet, Disney has been able to craft stories around characters like her, to sanitize and spin them (classical mermaids were a far more deadly sort than how we think of them now) in ways that children find inspiring and aspirational. And that’s perfectly fine, because the artistic goal is just uncomplicated entertainment.
On the other hand, we have Ruby, whose motivations and desires are completely understandable and reasonable, and are clearly stated upfront. She wants to be a normal teenager and not stick out because of her identity, knowing the problems that being found out could cause (Captain Lighthouse literally gives boat-shaped bus tours about his kraken hunts and eyes the Gillmans with constant suspicion). She wants the basic experience and rite of passage that is Prom Night, and is willing to bend the rules to make it happen. She’s legitimately angry to be kept in the dark about her heritage, and decides to educate herself in order to find a balance, nervous about the pressure of expectations from her mother AND her grandmother. Even when she makes the rebellious move that sets the main plot in motion, it’s with the knowledge of the potential consequences, from parental punishment to heartbreak and social embarrassment, but she’s willing to take a calculated risk for her relatively small goals. Literally every action she takes, we know why she’s doing it, what could happen, and she does so with a level of maturity to accept responsibility for it, which Ariel NEVER did.
That’s the real indictment of the Disney formula, using a kids movie to tell the impressionable viewer that it’s okay to like what you like, but as we get older, it’s crucial that we learn to recognize fact from fiction, and actually question what we prioritize and make into sacred cows. The central premise of this film is a much-needed slap upside the head to the audience to tell them to reevaluate their own biases, some of which are ingrained by popular culture, judge people on their actions rather than a preconceived notion of their image, and don’t blindly reward those who spoon the same “comfort food” down your throat year in and year out. It’s extremely precarious to basically call your potential customers dumb for their own fandom, but sometimes a blunt approach is necessary to elicit the proper response.
All that praise aside, there are problems with this movie. As fun as the dialogue can be, particularly with regard to Ruby’s appearance, I still don’t buy that no one would have figured out her family’s secret and exploited it. I can suspend my disbelief with the best of them (including ignoring the sexual implications of Ruby getting together with Connor because that’s not the point for a kiddie film), but when I see Sam defying the laws of physics to win at dodgeball, I roll my eyes, especially when the gym teacher — presumably an actual adult who can think and observe — opts for calling him a “legend” rather than going, “What the hell was that?”
Further, as mentioned earlier, Ruby’s “Squad” leaves a lot to be desired. I like the fact that she has a small group of friends, as those are the ones that stick with you long after your school days are over (I’m still friends with most of my nerdy clique over 20 years later), but they don’t really serve a purpose other than to make Ruby feel uncomfortable. Initially none of them were going to prom in an act of “Squad Solidarity,” but then a girl Margot likes asked her out, so she agreed, and then Trevin asked Bliss out “as friends only,” so now Ruby’s left out and made to feel guilty. What kind of solidarity is that? It’s especially egregious when Margot outright demands that Ruby ask Connor out in an elaborate “Prom-posal” despite that very much being not her style (she actually has a really cute idea as a math nerd to spell out “prom” on her graphic calculator that Margot quashes instantly), and using the group’s mantra as a weapon against Ruby when she starts talking to Chelsea. Again, it’s forgivable to an extent because teenagers are still figuring their shit out, but there’s a limit, and there comes a point where you’re just being a bad friend.
While the film lobs some well-deserved criticism Disney’s way, there are a couple of moments that seem more derivative of Dreamworks’ rivals — specifically Pixar — than legit commentary. When Ruby first transforms, her parents’ reactions to it are basically the same as in Turning Red, complete with Ruby’s appropriate frustration at being lied to about something so important. It’s not a blatant reference to menstruation, but all that means is that it’s the same bit without the poignant subtext. You can even see shades of Luca in how the krakens become fully realized once submerged.
But worst of all is the soundtrack. For several moments in the film, basically during every montage and major scene transition, there’s some generic, shitty pop song thrown in. I’m all for needle drops if they make sense and are used in proper moments, but this is beyond the pale. Pretty much all of them (including the two originals that did not distinguish themselves at all) play like entry-level Taylor Swift parodies where the lyrics are just mindless platitudes like, “I’m sad,” I’m shy,” I don’t know what to do,” and “When will he notice me?” set to lazy computerized beats. It reminded me of the grating songs from A Wrinkle in Time or the sketch on Robot Chicken that made fun of The Hills.
Those problems knock the film down a few notches, but overall, it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. It tells a fun, thoughtful story with weirdly believable characters and says in much more playful terms than I can that our allegiance to the Disney machine is idiotic. The opening narration apes the “Let’s tell an old story anew” bullshit from Maleficent but actually follows through on its thesis of showing how one group thought to be evil can actually be good and the so-called heroes can actually be villains. And not for nothing, but as of right now, this movie does have a slightly higher Rotten Tomatoes score than the Little Mermaid remake, so maybe there’s a chance that the point eventually sinks in.
The main assertion brought back memories of Despicable Me 3 of all things. In that movie’s opening sequence, Gru and Lucy navigate the sea in submersibles on the way to fight Balthazar Bratt. On the way, they casually eviscerate a couple of clownfish, including shredding one’s fin off. This was a clear shot at Finding Nemo and Disney/Pixar writ large, but it was cheap because this was the third entry in a fairly basic, inane franchise of consistently diminishing returns that never had any ambition beyond, “What if bad guy turn good? Then we sell toys!” and that was two movies before. The jab doesn’t work when you can’t put forth a product worthy of those you’re mocking. With Ruby Gillman, it’s clear the filmmakers wanted to back up their salvo with actual creativity and characterization rather than sour grapes, to make sure they didn’t miss when they came at the king. That’s why Ruby herself is a math whiz. It’s all about showing your work.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What other studios and tropes could use a well-crafted call out? How stressful was your prom? Let me know! Also, be sure to follow me on Twitter and YouTube!