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Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken (2023)


It’s hard not to consider Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken in reference to the recent Disney live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid.

A little too hard.

And it doesn’t seem like a far-stretch to assume the film’s release was planned that way at some stage. Dreamworks’ flagship film was Shrek in 2001, and since then, the studio has distinguished itself as the ideological antagonist to Disney: while Disney does fairy godmothers and love at first sight, Dreamworks does ogres and raised eyebrows.

Ruby Gillman is a teenage mathlete hiding her identity as a kraken. Dreamworks has historically been a bit hit-and-miss with its CG animated characters, but the designs of the humans and superhumans in this film are creative and rather pretty. Turning an Eldritch mythical creature like a kraken into a relatable and emotive character must have taken some innovative thinking. The human characters are well-conveyed by their styles and expressions, such as the love-interest with a blue afro that subtly mirrors Ruby’s cobalt, Medusa tentacles.

By contrast, the queendom of the sea is more of a dim wasteland. We see Ruby being seduced by the grandeur and beauty she experiences in the deep. But don’t feel that awe with her - don’t fall in love with it as she does. We culturally associate the kraken with the dark depths of the sea, whereas mermaid films get the benefit of the tropic shoal, teeming with colorful life. But surely, the strange corners of the ocean have something more visually intricate to play with than barren planes of sand. Even the queen’s cavern feels a bit cramped and flat, which is disappointing, because the design of the queen herself is one of the highlights of the movie’s visuals.

Ruby as a main character is very likable, and while many of the beats in her story felt paint-by-number, her idiosyncrasies feel genuine and easy to love. Her passion for math and science, her protectiveness of animals, and her struggle to match her emerging feminism with her desire to go to prom with a boy she likes all feel like authentic parts of a young person’s life.

While Ruby’s friend group doesn’t get much time to shine, she has other relationships that manage to wrangle a few sincere moments out of a pretty mundane script. Her core relationship with her mother feels compassionate, and if we didn’t know Ruby was a teenager struggling with a huge life-event, we might be more inclined to take her mother’s side. There seems to be a shift in the way children’s media deals with parent/child relationships, particularly in animation. Parents are allowed to be people with valid motivations now, and one thing this film does quite a bit better than its live-action rival over at Disney is showing the fear and love of restrictive parents. While King Triton breaks Ariel’s possessions in an uncontrollable, terrifying fit of rage, Agatha Gillman talks her daughter out of a panic attack with a controlled voice and promises of support rather than punishment. 

Ruby’s other family members support the film’s B-plot, which has about the same amount of relevance to the main plot as you would expect from a particularly tired sitcom in its last season, but is charming nonetheless. Overall, however, “Teenage Kraken” fails to invest viewers in the story, and a painfully predictable twist doesn’t do much to make up for the script’s formulaic emotional beats. For all the faults Dreamworks has exhibited over the years, I can’t remember boring writing being a particular problem, but much of the comedy, motivations, and twists of this film fall flat.

While not surprising that The Little Mermaid and Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken were released so close together, I was surprised at just how blatantly “Teenage Kraken” references the film it is being posed against.

Without giving too much away… the film pretty explicitly hates Ariel. Like, a lot.

Yet try as it might, this movie just recreates her in the form of Ruby Gillman, right down to using her powers to save her love interest from drowning in the inciting incident. She feels out of place, finds herself more comfortable in a different body, and longs for the world on the other side of the surface.

The only material subversion attempted is the villainization of the traditionally beautiful mermaids while portraying the terrifying kraken as heroes. Which teaches us a very important lesson about… uh… judging magical creatures before we get to know them? That kraken are like onions? Or, is it that some kinds of people truly are inherently evil, it’s just that we can judge which ones they are by their appearance?

The overt antithetical statement the movie tries to make is either too confusing to resonate with or completely meaningless. More than two decades after Shrek blew our minds with the message of letting people pursue their own happiness regardless of the narrow options society confines them to, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken manages to continue the Disney-mooning tradition it began while adding nothing to the conversation it started.


IN A NUTSHELL:  Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken has a few solid elements but is ultimately bogged down by its adherence to the Dreamworks metanarrative


Shain Slepian is a screenwriter, script consultant, and content creator with a life-long love of animation and media analysis. Their work can be found on MediumLeft Voice, and on their YouTube channel, TimeCapsule. Shain's book, Reframing The Screenwriting Process, is available on Amazon.