2023 has essentially given us two Little Mermaid remakes. Weirdly enough, DreamWorks has produced the superior one. Okay, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken might not be an official remake of the Disney classic, but Jeffrey Katzenberg’s old stomping ground must’ve been on the filmmakers’ minds. The movie even features a redheaded mermaid who’s just a dinglehopper short of being Ariel’s doppelgänger. She’s not the focus of this animated teen comedy, however. The titular Ruby Gillman isn’t a fish out of water. She’s a literal Kraken out of water, going full Ursula when things grow out of control.
Ruby (Lana Condor) can keep her size under wraps, although you’d think classmates would bring up her blue skin. Ruby simply tells others that she’s from Canada, which will always be America’s go-to punchline. Of course, the Gillman family is truly from under the sea. Getting in touch with her Kraken side, Ruby is compelled to visit her “Grandmamah,” voiced by Jane Fonda. Going from the dragon in Luck to a Kraken queen, there seems to be an unwritten rule that Fonda has to voice every giant, mystical boss lady in animation. Not that I’m complaining.
Ruby also encounters a new girl named Chelsea (Annie Murphy), who naturally turns out to be a mermaid. As Ruby learns from her Grandmamah, Krakens are misunderstood creatures while mermaids are the mean girls of the sea. Nevertheless, Ruby believes that she can bridge the rift between worlds by befriending Chelsea. All the while, Ruby juggles the typical high school tropes: asking a boy to prom, butting heads with parents, escaping a hellbent fisherman voiced by Will Forte… maybe that last one isn’t as relatable. The film’s coming-of-age themes are cleverly merged with the fantastical circumstances, although it’s hard to get past the sentiment that we’ve seen this before.
While Ruby Gillman takes more chances than Disney’s Little Mermaid remake, Pixar delved into magical puberty recently with Luca and Turning Red. Ruby Gillman lacks the depth of those films, which offered more surprises. You don’t have to be a marine biologist to predict where this story is going, which extends to a not-so-surprising villain reveal. The script might not be DreamWorks’ strongest, especially coming off last year’s Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. However, Ruby Gillman is another visual delight with vibrant colors and an abundance of energy that doesn’t go to waste.
The character animation is reminiscent of the rubber hose style that’s thankfully starting to make a mainstream comeback. It’d be fun to see director Kirk DeMicco’s crew tackle a Popeye movie, assuming that Genndy Tartakovsky never gets another shot. Where most animation studios continue to stick to a house style, DreamWorks continues to experiment in encouraging ways. The characters are further elevated by committed voice work from Toni Collette as Ruby’s mother, Colman Domingo as her father, and Sam Richardson as her uncle. It might not be the best animated coming-of-age story from the past few years, but Ruby Gillman is executed with charm and fishy flair. Just don’t milk it with a live-action remake.