One of my more controversial reviews of recent memory is my thoughts on Pixar’s Turning Red which I liked in concept but thought was executed poorly. I particularly really disliked the Mother character in the film but it wasn’t just that. The panda metaphor fell apart on careful analysis and required audience members to fill in too many gaps when it came to how the embrace of the panda worked and what it meant for teens who can’t choose to experience puberty. It just happens whether they like it or not. It was a film surprisingly unhelpful to teens giving them a catchphrase and nothing more.
Now we have from DreamWorks a very similar story but given the execution I wanted from Turning Red: It’s called Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken. Does it have its flaws? Sure but at its core is a carefully told story that teens will actually be able to relate with, a non-messy metaphor and story with humor at every turn.
Ruby is a kraken who tries to assimilate with her high school environment. She wants to fit in and go to prom but it is being held on a boat on the ocean and her mother (Toni Collette) forbids her from going on or near the ocean. Unlike the Mom being unreasonable in Turning Red, this makes sense and is logical. The Mother character is trying to protect her daughter but she’s not hiding anything from her. Ruby can see that but she still wants to do the activities of her peers- also reasonable. What mother/daughter relationship can’t relate to that? She also has a crush on a boy (and isn’t shamed for it like Mei is in Turning Red) she tutors (it’s actually really sweet and I like that the boy isn’t weirded out at all by her being a kraken. What a great diversity message of true natural acceptance), and she deals with a new friend named Chelsea who may have a secret motive that is spoiled in the trailer. Friendship is such a tricky thing at those ages so I appreciated what they did with that relationship and her other friends as well even if the plot turn was predictable.
I do think Ruby Gillman is less successful when it gets bogged down in the goings-on of Ruby’s Grandmamah (Jane Fonda) who rules over the sea. It’s less successful narrative-wise and animation-wise but it’s still narratively consistent and while generic it at least makes sense for the characters (unlike much of recent Pixar where they are all about concepts over narrative.)
The voice cast is all excellent here with Lana Condor providing a bright voice for Ruby, and I loved the claymation aesthetic to the character designs out of the water (again less successful in the water.) Evidently one of the writers Pam Brady also wrote for South Park and you can feel the sharp comic timing (not in grown-up content of South Park but the smart writing), and again I appreciate that the conflict and story all made sense for our characters. Even though Ruby is a kraken we can all relate to feeling out of place, confused, frustrated, without it becoming all of who we are. She is a nuanced, easy to relate with character that boys and girls, teens of any gender (or non-binary) anybody will connect with and understand. We’ve all been there trying to fit in and trying to obey our parents and be true to ourselves all at the same time.
It’s a shame Ruby Gillman is being buried by DreamWorks and Universal because I think they have something special here, and I really enjoyed it. This is well done storytelling with good characters, a charming script, and a story that tackles the challenges of adolescence with just the right touch. The more I’ve thought about it the more I admire it. Give it a chance. Take your family. You just might love it.
8 out of 10
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