Review: Ruby Gillman - Teenage Kraken

Some days, you feel like a mermaid princess. Other days, you feel more like a kraken that wants to lash out at anything that disturbs your peace. DreamWorks' newest animated feature, Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken finds the best of both worlds by providing a relatable kraken princess who just wants to be an ordinary girl with ordinary problems. Several years ago, I thought I was being ironic as a princess fan playing a kraken in the King of Tokyo board game. I never imagined there would be a movie someday that combines the two genres alongside a villainess who bears a tongue-in-cheek resemblance to my favorite Disney Princess. When you push the parody and jokes aside, Ruby Gillman is a pretty standard coming-of-age teen drama that can easily compare to any other mainstream teen movie from the past few decades.

Apart from her blue hair and skin, Ruby Gillman is an average awkward nerdy girl who just wants to fit in with the rest of the kids in her high school. The biggest problem in her life is how to ask her crush to go to the prom with her. When a spectacularly failed promposal attempt causes him to fall into the ocean, Ruby learns that being submerged in water transforms her body into a giant kraken. She is horrified by this revelation and demands an explanation from her mother, who she feels had been lying to her for her entire life by telling her that going into the ocean was deadly. This causes her to run away and seek guidance from her Grandmama, who rules over the other kraken kingdom as their queen and welcomes Ruby into their world with open arms. After spending some time with her, Ruby starts to understand why her mother ran away from that life. Though well-meaning, Ruby's grandma is prejudiced against humans, mermaids, and pretty much anyone else who isn't a kraken. She allows Ruby to return to her old life believing that "a kraken will always answer the call of the ocean."

Unfortunately, Ruby is particularly vulnerable at this point, which puts her in the perfect position to be manipulated by Chelsea, a mermaid who enrolled in her school with the specific intent of seeking out the krakens over an old grudge involving Ruby's family. One of the things I liked about this movie is that it dared to fight against the princess trend that began around 2017 in which princesses always forgive people who stab them in the back, which leaves them vulnerable to more betrayal. The lesson that you shouldn't trust people who don't have your best interest at heart is particularly important for a movie with a high school setting like this one because that is where vulnerable people like Ruby are most likely to be manipulated. However, in my own experience, people like this can worm their way into a person's life long after high school if they're not careful. That's why it's important to find ways to teach this to young people as early as possible to avoid trauma later in their lives.

It is of particular note that Chelsea's disguise bears a strong resemblance to Disney's Ariel, which serves as a meta-commentary of how Disney likes to hide behind live-action remakes of their animated masterpieces to mask their recent dearth of creativity. However, they took this particular case a little too far in their marketing by placing a controversial trailer in front of Disney's live-action Little Mermaid that showed Ruby's Grandmama insulting people who like mermaids, which was taken out of context to portray her pride as a kraken. Another Disney reference is that the movie essentially has the same plot as Pixar's Turning Red, which came out last year. However, if I had to pick between those two films, I would choose Ruby Gillman. This movie is more modern, and the characters are less annoying overall. I particularly liked Ruby's mother, who came off as someone who genuinely cared about her happiness and well-being as opposed to the toxic and controlling mother from Turning Red.

Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken is an irreverent coming-of-age story that has more to offer to children and teenagers than adults. Its message about only trusting those who have your best interests at heart is especially meaningful for younger viewers. The beautiful undersea aesthetics make it more entertaining than movies with similar plots like Turning Red, and the tongue-in-cheek references to Disney and Pixar follow the standard course of a DreamWorks parody. As a whole, the movie provides a less feminine alternative to mermaids for awkward teenage girls who want to imagine themselves as ocean royalty. Do you plan to see Ruby Gillman in theaters? Let me know in the comments!


Sugar said…
Maybe later on tv or some service, It's "too young" for me to call a movie for that.
"Elements" sounds more interesting... the love story between water and fire seems cute.
Lisa Dawn said…
You might like the novel I wrote called Rebirth: A Faery's Tale, which is a romance with similar concepts to Elemental.
Sugar said…
I'll put it on my wish list!
I have a lot of issues with this movie, as you obviously know, most are personal, but one thing that I wanted to discuss in the comment section here is I actually like the idea of a fantasy undersea world where humanoid krakens and mermaids have been at war, and are prejudiced against each other. I thought it provides such a natural set-up for a story about unlikely friendship and overcoming prejudice. I think it would be beautiful if a kraken and mermaid became friends, as it can allegorically show that everyone is beautiful and special in their own way, and their differences should be embraced and celebrated. If mermaids and krakens teamed up to protect the oceans, it would be a beautiful metaphor for people of different cultures working together. I've never felt more frustrated over a movie not going in the direction I've wanted it to. Yes, it's just a movie, but as a writer myself, it still frustrates me. As it is, the message of the movie does not resonate with me at all, as it does nothing to show that warring races can make peace. There's lots of movies with that kind of message, yes, granted, but not one involving krakens and mermaids, so it feels like a major missed opportunity.

"Be careful who you trust" is a good message on its own. I do acknowledge that. Lots of people, myself included, have been hurt when they naively trusted people who did not have our best interest at hurt, and that is definitely a message that young people need to hear, but I don't think it works well in the context of a movie about warring krakens and mermaids. It can imply, unintentionally, that if you try to befriend people different from you, especially if your family warned you about "their kind", nothing good will come of it.

I also think this movie deeply misunderstands why many people like mermaids. I don't just love mermaids because they're pretty. It's much deeper than that. They represent allegorically the "fish out of water" in all of us, and show disabled people that you don't need to walk to be beautiful. They're also a perfect symbol for ocean conservation, symbolizing the way humanity needs to be better connected to the ocean, which is also why I wanted it to needs with krakens and mermaids alike working together to protect the ocean. My character, "Nerissa Sanderson, the Part-Time Mermaid of Sunshine Valley, CA" was written at a rough time in my life while I struggled to fit in with a community that I didn't fit in with due to my disability, so as you obviously know, I felt triggered to see a character so similar to mine portrayed as irredeemably evil. The dialogue about how mermaids are "selfish narcissists" hit home as I was accused before of that.
Lisa Dawn said…
Beautifully stated, Kae-Leah!
Kae-Leah Williamson said…
Sharing a post I made on TVTropes forum, because I gave you a shout-out <3: "You guys all brought up some good points. There's nothing wrong with a villain being unapologetically evil, of course. My best friend, who has an awesome blog called the Princess Blog, had a different take on this movie than me because she really liked the "be careful who you trust" message, and felt like the constant redemption arcs in children's media lately could even be giving kids unrealistic expectations. After all, in real life, of course some people are just bad, period. But with all that said...I think what, like others have said, it comes off as, admittedly probably unintentionally, as a racial subtext is that both the marketing and characters' words kept saying mermaids in general were evil, even though in it was actually more like a specific individual. Some relatively minor tweaks to the script could've helped that if it was clear that the conflict was about the Mermaid Queen as an individual being an evil monarch and not with the entire species. Like, what if during her exposition, Grandmamah talked about how The Mermaid Queen was a horrible tyrant who abused even her own people? Even just saying "I know not all mermaids are evil but..." would help a bit. Considering all the evil actions in the movie were actually done by one individual, it seems especially odd that both the movie's marketing and some of the dialogue in the movie made it sound like all mermaids were evil, as opposed to "THIS mermaid is evil!"."

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