DreamWorks Animation has a stable of productions that range from the wildly entertaining (The Bad Guys) to the grossly moving (Shrek series) to the emotionally thrilling (How to Train Your Dragon series). Each one of them was a showcase in their time for technical and narrative prowess. Joining the ranks is director Kirk DeMicco’s (Vivo/The Croods) and first-time co-director Faryn Pearl’s original tale Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, a story featuring, you guessed it, a teenage kraken going through their own coming-of-age journey involving family secrets, young love, and mermaids. After a brief time in theaters, DreamWorks Animation and Universal Pictures are releasing Ruby Gillman in homes, accompanied by a collection of bonus features that offer both an in-depth look at the creation of the film, as well as activities for younger audience members.
Growing up in Oceanside, Ruby Gillman (voiced by Lana Condor) has always felt different. As a kraken playing human, she’s had to follow her mother Agatha’s (voiced by Toni Collette) strict rules in order to fit in. Luckily, no one’s really noticed her four tendrils on each hand, her blue skin, or her incredibly flexible physique, writing it off as something that makes sense for Canadians. But when prom comes up and she tries to ask out her crush, Connor (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White), she accidentally breaks her mother’s rules, sparking the attention of a friend and potential foe. Now, Ruby must try to figure out what it means to be a kraken before her life as a teenager is gone forever.
Though this is an initial review for EoM, in order to discuss aspects of the film that resonated, the following home release review will contain spoilers. So if you haven’t yet seen Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken and just want to know the deal with the bonus features, jump down past the image of embiggened Ruby and you should be in safe waters.
In preparation for this review, I screened the film with my eight-year-old, the intended audience for Ruby, in order to get a general sense of whether or not the film hits its targets. Well, dear reader, when the film wrapped and the credits started, without provocation, he stated, “I loved it” and darted away to do something else. That the film is a tight 90 minutes *with* credits feels like a gift, but that it held his attention, getting him to laugh (and making him squirm) where it made sense to implies that DeMicco and writers Pam Brady (Team America World Police), Brian C. Brown (Lucy in the Sky), and Elliott DiGuiseppi (Lucy in the Sky), hit the bullseye. Do I think he’s going to fully understand the tension of asking someone out just yet? No, not really, but I do think he understands what it feels like to not feel quite right in his skin, to feel unique and somehow strange to others. That part’s pretty universal. When he’s sat with it more, I certainly plan to chat with him about how the film made him feel, attempting to use the opportunity of the narrative to create a space he’ll feel safe in to explore his own anxieties. The longtime hope being that as he ages, he’ll feel comfortable to always chat with his parents about his fears so that they don’t become any larger than he imagines.
Why bring this up? Because one of the biggest strengths in the script is the lesson directed (intentionally or otherwise) at parents: don’t keep secrets from your kids. Opinions are like anuses, right, but this is a piece of advice that all of us would do well to remember, because the familial tension in Ruby is created because Ruby didn’t understand *why* the rules Agatha instituted mattered, only that she was entrusted to do as her mother said. Of course, this is the kind of authoritative parenting that caused Agatha to run away from her own mother, known as Grandmamah in the film and voiced by Jane Fonda (9 to 5), so it makes sense that, in not knowing a better way, Agatha merely does the same thing in the opposite direction. See, Agatha knows that if Ruby goes into the ocean, not only will it activate her powers, causing her to grow kaiju-sized, but it will also send a signal through the water that others can sense. The “not knowing” or “withholding” trope is as ancient as Greece with parents throughout narrative and real history trying to protect their kids by shielding them from aspects of themselves. However, imagine if Ruby had known from the start what happens when she touches water and why it matters if she avoids it. Give Ruby agency to make her own choices and understand the consequences of them. Does it make sense that Ruby would be neither emotionally or, possibly, physically ready to go to war with the enemies of the Krakens? She’s 15 or 16 and has had zero training — of course she’s not ready. But what if Agatha had been honest at age-appropriate levels through her development? What if Agatha had trusted her daughter, not controlled her, so that Ruby wouldn’t grow emotionally dysregulated when she transforms the first time? There’s no script if this doesn’t happen, but let’s transpose this to the real world: what might be better in our own lives if someone had trusted us to know the truth about our world, our community, and our place within it? For all the things within Ruby Gillman that apply to kids, conveying the strength they possess if they only have the courage to channel it, it’s the lesson to the parents that rings the loudest.
But you didn’t come here to explore all that, you want to know what’s included with the home release so as to be better prepared when you screen this. First, for the cinephiles, animation heads, and fans of the film, there’s a feature-length commentary track with DeMicco, Pearl, producer Kelly Cooney Cilella, Head of Character Animation Carlos Fernandez Puertolas and Head of Cinematography & Layout Jon Gutman. After this is 30 minutes+ of edutainment via six featurettes exploring the process of recording dialogue for the film (referred to as automated dialogue replacement (ADR)), a “dip” into the stories surrounding the mythical Kraken led by Condor and Annie Murphy (who voices the mermaid Chelsea Van Der Zee), an exploration of the Gillman vast with their voice actors, stories from the cast with their experiences with prom, and a “dive” into the female characters and the relationships that make up the dramatic tension of the film.
The above is great from the perspective of learning about movie-making, but what may just delight parents with enthusiastic children looking for ways to liven up dull days are the final additions that inspire more of a hands-on interaction. Like The Bad Guys (2022) and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022) before it, Ruby Gillman includes brief demos on drawing five different characters from the film. A nice touch to help encourage the artistic side of audiences. Looking for something more scientific? There’re also two walkthroughs on how to make your own aquarium, creating an opportunity to have a little fun and learn something along the way. Maybe it’s the home-school parent in me, but this last bit has some interesting possibilities.
Overall, Ruby Gillman is not only an entertaining film, it’s a thoughtful one. That it just so happens to also include several beautiful moments in animation is just added topping for animation fans. In particular, the detail work that’s noticeable in close-up and intimate shots, the shine of differing color in the scales, the little details of the water, even when dark. All of these little things make the character of Ruby feel more realized than just computer-animated sketches. Though there are things that felt a little too rushed in order to keep the energy up, preventing some of the weight of Ruby and Agatha’s choices to sit with the audience a little longer, it’s not so bad as to bring the whole down terribly. Plus, with its bright colors and lively cast of characters, a tight runtime is the benefit for all parents whose child may declare “one more time.”
Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken Special Features:
- Feature Commentary – with Director Kirk DeMicco, Co-Director Faryn Pearl, Producer Kelly Cooney Cilella, Head of Character Animation Carlos Fernandez Puertolas and Head of Cinematography, Layout Jon Gutman. (1:31:12)
- Squad Solidarity: Adventures in ADR (3:03)
- The Kraken: Myth or Monster – In this animated piece narrated by Lana Condor and Annie Murphy, we dive deep into the mysteries of krakens and discover how stories of these mythical beasts have evolved over hundreds and hundreds of years. (3:32)
- Meet The Gillman Cast – Meet the cast behind your favorite Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken characters and discover what they loved about lending their voices to this aquatic adventure! (9:03)
- The Kraken Krew: Meet the Humans Behind The Gillmans (9:58)
- Prom Stories – Ruby’s greatest wish was to attend prom with her friends and crush Connor! Here, the cast of the movie share their own prom stories and explain how they would design a promposal. (4:37)
- Super Sea Girl Besties – If you can see it, you can be it! In this piece we meet the talented women involved in the making of Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken. (5:06)
- Two (2) Trailers (5:00)
- Three (3) Deleted Scenes with Intros – Introductions by Co-Director Faryn Pearl (10:13)
- Oceanside Drawing Guide – Head of story, Glenn Harmon, will teach everyone how to draw Ruby Gillman in her teenager and kraken forms, Grandmamah, Chelsea, and mermaid Chelsea. (14:30)
- Make Your Own Aquarium – With a few simple products and a little imagination, you can bring the undersea world into your own home.
- Krakenarium (7:48)
- Well of Seas (2:50)
Available on digital August 29th, 2023.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD September 26th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official DreamWorks Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.