‘Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken’ Review: DreamWorks Wrestles With How to Train Its Kraken Concept

If you’re going to make a movie about a kraken — those giant multi-tentacled sea monsters believed to wrestle ships from below — then computer animation is hands down the way to go. The trouble with doing so at a major American studio is that it comes with the imperative to turn these fantastical creatures into cutesy-wootsy kid-movie fodder, which is precisely what DreamWorks Animation does with the reasonably clever myth-twisting toon “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken.” The creative team’s high-concept take suggests “Twilight” as a (literal) fish-out-of-water comedy, wherein a family of blue-skinned squid-things attempt to pass as human.

Fifteen years ago, Agatha (voiced by Toni Collette) and Peter (Colman Domingo) abandoned the ocean to raise their kids on land. Despite the obvious hurdles — their conspicuous cerulean tint, floppy limbs and invertebrate status — they’ve been reasonably successful at blending in. Anytime someone looks suspicious, Ruby (Lana Condor) just says she’s from Canada, and that does the trick. But Ruby’s not nearly as comfortable with her own otherness, which she’s spent her entire life trying to disguise. All of that gets a lot more difficult a few days before prom, when she dives into the sea to save her crush, Connor (Jaboukie Young-White). Contact with water awakens something deep within Ruby and releases her inner kraken.

It’s a weird premise, seeing as how no one has ever treated krakens this way before on screen. They’re not like sasquatches or teen wolves — creatures that are reasonably anthropomorphic to start with, and about whom dozens of projects already exist. Director Kirk DeMicco (“The Croods,” “Vivo”) and co-helmer Faryn Pearl are basically juggling two ideas here.

The first is a fairly standard undercover-teenage-monster movie, in which something — usually puberty — threatens to expose a character doing his or her best to keep a low profile in high school. (Pixar did something similar with “Turning Red” last year.) The second — and more original — idea is a super-cartoony take on krakens, where the fearsome monsters are reimagined as forces for good, with googly eyes and impressive phosphorescent bodies, trapped in an ancient battle with evil mermaids (another revisionist take). This rivalry plays out via big effects-driven fight scenes fitting of a Godzilla movie, but doesn’t necessarily seem to follow from the other adolescent angst story.

“South Park” veteran Pam Brady, who shares screenwriting credit with Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi, brings all kinds of funny ideas to the film, which DeMicco does an admirable job of executing. But there’s a simpler, more sincere movie underneath it all that seems to be taunting audiences, like a glowing shape from deep below. If you buy the notion that krakens shrink down to human scale — and that none-too-bright people might be daft enough not to spot them — then the high school scenes are charming. Ruby’s a big nerd with a head for quadratic equations, and she’s having trouble working up the nerve to ask her study buddy to prom (it’s pretty clear he feels the same way about her). Not that overprotective Agatha would let her attend anyway.

Tired of what her friends call “your mom’s irrational anti-ocean rule,” Ruby decides to investigate her kraken identity, swimming down to meet her Grandmamah (Jane Fonda, who sounds like a sea monster with a pack-a-day smoking habit). Ruby’s surprised to learn that the Gillmans are royalty, which means she’s a princess — a revelation that makes her a lot more reluctant to go back to her old life on land, especially after her transformation left the locals terrified. She’s even got salty old sailor Gordon Lighthouse (Will Forte) out hunting for her. Meanwhile, in water, Ruby takes the form of an enormous bioluminescent squid that can shoot lasers from her eyes, design challenges that call for some truly dazzling visual effects (nothing so gorgeous as “Avatar: The Way of Water,” but far more inviting than the gloomy undersea kingdoms of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and the live-action “Littler Mermaid”). In no time, Ruby’s forgotten all about Connor and prom, focusing her attention instead on training her newfound powers.

Suspiciously enough, at nearly the same time that Ruby discovers that she’s a monster (in humans’ eyes, at least), a super-confident redhead named Chelsea Van Der Zee (Annie Murphy) arrives at school. The instantly popular new girl sees something in Ruby that the other students don’t, and in no time, we learn that she’s a mermaid. Just moments before, Ruby was warned about those “selfish, vain narcissists.” Choosing to ignore Grandmamah, Ruby instead trusts this fishy new friend, who’s clearly using her to find the all-powerful magic trident. Once that spear falls into the wrong hands, the movie stages a massive “The Little Mermaid”-like finale, at which point the villain rises up to conquer all — only this time, the tentacled characters are good, whereas it’s a mermaid (in exaggeratedly ugly form) who does the terrorizing.

During the big showdown, the movie keeps cutting to the other characters, which is enough to make you realize how effective the filmmakers were at providing personalities to the rest of their ensemble — including goofy Uncle Brill (Sam Richardson) and a diverse mix of school friends. It’s a shame that the plot gets so carried away with the supernatural power struggle, since the mile-a-minute movie is far more engaging when focused on Ruby — who makes an appealing addition to the DreamWorks Animation family — and the sitcom-ready aspect of kraken-human relations. The studio is always looking for a new franchise, so maybe that dynamic will drive a TV series or spin-off one day. In feature form, however, the spectacular sequences distract from Ruby’s personal struggle, preventing this kraken tale from going as deep as it might have.

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