A time-honored tradition in children’s entertainment is the conflict between older generations and youth. Be it a misunderstanding, a conflict with expected tradition and personal desire, or just a general since of distance, a conflict between the young protagonist and their family serves as the backbone of countless films for audiences that are meant to identify with that younger hero.
This theme really picked up steam in the films of my own youth. I saw countless movies based around the struggle to pull away from a perceived oppression, often leading to reconciliation between the parental figure and the viewpoint character. This was most often met with a loosening of the reigns, giving the hero more freedom, or at the very least understanding, that the familial expectations were unreasonable all along.
These themes have certainly not slowed down, though the complexity of their representation has deepened over time. The narrative of “parents just don’t understand” evolved into explorations of shared, generational trauma, as exemplified in films such as Coco and Encanto, where parental oppression was a manifestation of past pain and structured as a means of protection. This recontextualization of the complications of the family dynamic has become a seemingly ever-present bedrock for family entertainment; it just was the central conflict in Pixar’s newest, Elemental. As does the newest outing from DreamWorks, the excellent Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken.
What separates Ruby Gillman from the pack however is its surprising carefulness with these topics, specifically in the area of presenting a parental perspective that is neither shallow nor tortured. Rather the film opts for a complicated family dynamic where no side of it is completely in the right or the wrong, but rather operating under their own perception of best intentions. The conflict then comes from a lack of clarity, and leads to escalating stakes. It is less intergenerational trauma as it is a distance based on silence, secrets and lies, an immediately recognizable real hurdle for all families to tackle directly.
This complex, but relatable, depiction of a tricky family dynamic is just one thing that Ruby Gillman has going for it. It is also amusing and charming, using a dynamic animation style that grabs you from the first moment, and utilizes visually dense humor, melding mile-a-minute visual gags alongside DreamWorks’ more traditional patter humor. It is centered around a predictable but engaging adventure, and taps into a sense of youth culture that is simultaneously current and universal. And it taps into the visual iconography of Japanese kaiju films, without leaning into self-parody. After last year’s The Last Wish and The Bad Guys, it continues the studios hot streak of films that engage genre filmmaking in creative and surprising ways.
The titular Ruby is indeed a teenage kraken, though for the film’s language, kraken’s are blue-skinned, boneless creatures that are traditionally sea-dwellers. That “traditionally” caveat does a lot of work here however, as Ruby’s family (specifically her mom and dad and little brother) live on land in a small oceanside town, posing as “Canadians” to anyone who might have questions about their unusual appearance. A junior in high school supported by her squad of intellectual weirdos, Ruby is mostly concerned with fitting in, getting good grades, and asking her crush Connor out to prom, all while staying out of the water, her mother’s one non-negotiable rule.
This all escalates when Ruby has to save Connor from drowning by diving into the ocean, only to soon after grow to a monstrous size. Because not only is Ruby a kraken, but turns out she is a giant kraken, capable of growing to massive size as well as harnessing incredible powers. Facts her mother never told her before. When Ruby learns more about her heritage from her Grandmamah, who turns out to be the Queen of the Krakens, it creates a rift between her and her mother. This rift grows even wider once Ruby befriends Chelsea, a new girl in town who is also secretly a mermaid, the sworn enemies of the krakens.
This is the balancing act that Ruby Gillman performs deftly, balancing a fun sea-based adventure about giant monsters and mystic wars between krakens and mermaids, with the dynamics of a family dramedy, where the emotional stakes are re-establishing good faith. To this end, Ruby Gillman shares a lot of DNA with Turning Red, another film in the intergenerational trauma genre. But what Ruby Gillman is able to pull off more successfully is depicting this rift as multi-faceted. Ruby’s mom, Agatha, as voice acted by Toni Collette, is not simply a well-meaning but pig-headed parental figure who is making the same mistakes of her own childhood. Rather, she is someone who is trying to protect her children from a war that they owe nothing to; by contrast, from Grandmamah’s (Jane Fonda) perspective, Agatha neglected her duty, walking away from her birthright as protector of the sea.
These aren’t easy dynamics to take a simple side on, nor are the expectations place on Ruby especially fair or reasonable. As voice acted by Lana Condor and portrayed in an elastic, squash-and-stretch animation style by DreamWorks’ army of veteran animators, Ruby is a perfectly portrayed youth hero: equal parts cool and approachably nerdy, uncomfortable in her skin but instantly likable, she navigates discovering colossal truths about her family history with a sort of even-handed tact that makes her easy to root for. It would be perhaps a step too far to call Ruby Gillman the film hip, but in its “star”, it has created one of the most immediately winning heroes in the studios historic career.
The overall structure of the story that Ruby Gillman tells is admittedly unremarkable, predictable and somewhat pulling from tropes from other films, but it is in these margins that it really wins, with strong personality that elevates fairly stock-standard story beats to something that rewards the viewer, that provides a world that draws them in. Family dynamics are complicated, and most films engage with those tricky navigations with a sort of sledgehammer approach, suggesting that intergenerational conflicts are primarily caused by older generations simply not recognizing their children’s needs. But sometimes the process of discovering those needs require bursting through those conflicts, finding means of expression and providing avenues to grow in conversation with people who love us the most.
And sometimes it requires turning into a gigantic monster.