The Ruby in the jolly and entertaining Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is, true to billing, a Kraken. Which is to say, Wikipedia definition, a giant sea monster that’s found off the coast of Norway, according to old sailor lore.
Krakens don’t turn up in movies as often as vampires, zombies or even werewolves, but there are more of these folkloric creatures about than you might think – Victor Hugo and Jules Verne wrote about them, so did Alfred Lord Tennyson and Herman Melville (in Moby-Dick). John Wyndham perhaps most famously, in his novel The Kraken Wakes. But they also make an appearance in Game of Thrones and Pirates of the Caribbean. So Krakens do get about and are not merely confined to coastal Scandinavia.
I say “jolly” and “entertaining” – an old fashioned adjective and an anodyne one – because that’s what Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is at heart: a sweet and nice (two more) tale of a nerdy mathlete growing up on dry land who kind of knows that there’s something Kraken-y about her, and who abides by her mother’s strict instruction never to go in the ocean, until one day she does, and becomes a gigantic glowing creature of massive proportions.
Ruby, it turns out, is also the heir to the throne of the undersea kingdom of Oceanus, being the grand-daughter of the current ruler, known only as Grandmamah. But before she can assume her rightful place on the throne there is (big intake of a breath) an old grudge battle with the mermaids to settle, a showdown with a crusty old sea dog convinced that Krakens are more than a superstitious myth, a human boy at school to try and wrestle into a relationship, long-standing friendships to re-negotiate and the stirrings of puberty to wrangle. But most of all there’s her mother to placate, who is now furious with her because Ruby has gone and done the one thing she has been told not to do.
Ruby, the girl struggling to fit in at school and afraid to let her true nature shine, is the latest in a long line of stuttery, shy teenagers afraid to be themselves and learning that difference it to be celebrated not hidden. She’s also the latest in a line of girls/young women asserting herself in a largely male world.
But familiarity is not entirely what this story is about. It doesn’t exactly wrongfoot, but it does set out on what look like well trodden paths only to dive off into the weeds. The things we expect to happen don’t happen, and if they do they don’t come when we’re expecting them.
Take the mermaids. Evil creatures here. Nice touch. The monstrous krakens are the good guys. So when Ruby forges an alliance with a girl at school who turns out to be a mermaid, it really could go either way.
Grandmamah is voiced by Jane Fonda, in imperial crown and cape from the sound of her, and Toni Collette voices Ruby’s mother, whose presence on terra firma is either a brave striking-out for a new life or a cowardly ducking of destiny – neatly negotiated in Collette’s voice work. Ruby is voiced by Lana Condor, who spent her first months of life in a Vietnamese orphanage as Trần Đồng Lan before being adopted by Americans Mary and Bob Condor. That might colour her performance, which sparkles away with an undertow of melancholy.
It is a sparkly film, though, and moves briskly, populated by characters who are painted in broad strokes. We don’t get bogged down in too much backstory. There is no real lore to digest. The colours are bright and bold and the animation is clear and refreshingly its own thing. Maybe it borrows a touch from the work of Irish animation outfit Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells and, closer in tone, Song of the Sea) and maybe it doesn’t.
Gigantic females asserting themselves isn’t going to appeal to the Andrew Tates of the world, but while this film also didn’t particularly have me on my knees in idolatrous worship either, I do realise it isn’t aimed at crusty males who remember the pre-digital world. My inner female tween enjoyed it.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023