Saturday, July 22, 2023

Digitally release the kraken


Directed by Kirk DiMicco (co-directed by Faryn Pearl)
Written by Pam Brady, Brian C. Brown, and Elliott Giuseppe

Spoilers: moderate

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken
 might be destined to fail even at being a failure; of the exceptional series of box office collapses throughout the early summer of 2023it was released on June 30thit's still the afterthought, not even of sufficient interest beyond the semi-aligned communities of cultured, handsome animation aficionados (when I talk about animated features) and lame, embarrassing cartoon adults (when you talk about animated features) to be grieved, or hated upon, or even noticed.  And animation aficionados and cartoon adults still only barely noticed it.  It might wind up no more than a footnote to a retrospective written ten years from now from an underground bunker about how the summer of 2023 killed movie theaters; at best, it will occasionally make itself known as the "I know what those words mean, but that sign makes no sense" entry in the DreamWorks Animation filmography, a cryptic title wedged between their surprise 2022 masterpiece, Puss In Boots: The Last Wish, and their third Trolls movie.  The truly pitiful performance of the filmalready cheap, even for DWA, yet barely making half its $90 million budget backcan't even be said to be a proper humiliation.  To be humiliated, people have to know you exist.  I've been busy but I had wanted (somewhat) to see it in theaters, and suddenly I couldn't, for after only 21 days, it was already gone.  (Or almost: when going to see Mission: Impossible: The New One today I discovered that there was one showingat 9:45 a.m.)  Perhaps not unreasonably, then, they'd decided to see if there might be some appeal to the curious on VOD.

I am not here to tell you that Teenage Kraken deserved better.  I'm certainly not here to discuss the reasons for its commercial failureit's part of a broader phenomenon anywaybut also because the reasons for that failure are kind of, I don't know, self-evident?  It looked obnoxious, low-effort, and frankly, despite being an original property, a little prefabricated; and so it happens that it is, to no small degree, obnoxious, low-effort, and not much evidence of any passion from most people involved, from the vice president of strategic alliances (no, that's a real credit) to its director (journeyman Kirk DiMicco, who has, so far as it appears, never made anything close to a personal film even on the sliding scale we'd apply to major animated features).  It is, however, quite painless, and can be pretty.  Can be pretty.

It's a bad title, too, but give it this, it's descriptive.  Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken does in fact take as its subject the teenaged existence of the kraken, Ruby Gillman (Lana Condor).  Despite her watery nature, Ruby has lived her life landbound, the result of her familymother Agatha (Toni Collette), father Brill (Sam Richardson), and little brother Sam (Blue Chapman)having decamped from the sea to the shore in the aftermath of a conflict that has, rather nebulously, put them on the wrong side of the kraken authorities.  They have endeavored to live as humans, despite their obvious handicapsblue skin, gills, absence of calcium carbonate infrastructureand Ruby herself is awkwardly navigating her last stretch of high school, having done a decent job for a literal non-human freak though she has not, as yet, managed to get a prom date.  Ruby attempts to secure that date from her big crush Connor (Jaboukie Young-White, who appears, through no particular fault of his own, to be carrying around a curse to be visited upon the major animation houses), but in doing so, she accidentally knocks the lad into the ocean.  In violation of her mother's most ironclad rulenever, ever go into the oceanRuby must go into the ocean, if she's going to save him.

She accomplishes this, but in the process discovers that her mother came up with this crazy rule for a reasonupon exposure to the salt water, Ruby expands to a properly monstrous kraken sizeand even though she does rescue her unconscious would-be boyfriend, this leaves her plodding around as a destructive giant.  But even once she reverts with Agatha's soothing help, she remains tempted by the sea, particularly because now she knows the other thing Agatha wanted to hide from her, namely Agatha's mother (Jane Fonda), who's not just any kraken, but the queen of the krakens, monarch of a grand and mystical undersea realmwhich makes Ruby, of course, a kraken princess.  This is practically too overwhelming to process, so she goes back to her daily life at firstonly to realize that credit for Connor's rescue has been taken by a new girl at school, an effortlessly-popular redhead who, just like Ruby, also has a big secret and is named, well, Ariel, possibly, but it's actually "Chelsea Van Der Zee," which is, sure, sort of "hm, hm" funny, and not even "hm, hm" funny when you remember Hans Christian Andersen was Danish, not Dutch.

"Hm, hm" funny is about all Teenage Kraken's got, I'm afraid, so the most charitable thing for us to do is just forget about the almost-unbroken run of very-funny-to-extravagantly-funny cartoon comedies DreamWorks has managed over the past seven or so years.  I know the movie earnestly believes that the Gillmans' "we're Canadian" excuse for their odd appearance is more than "hm, hm" funny, and maybe it would be if the project had much sense of absurdism otherwise, though it doesn't.  (For starters, just from an emotional arc and storytelling perspective, let alone the perspective of an sometimes-absurd comedy, it would be better if Ruby herself didn't know she was a kraken.)  There's feints at the studio's customary rapid-fire gags, but the most notable of these is already expended in the first five minutes, as the film somehow manages to have two back-to-back narrated introductions, the first being a comparatively sober welcome to the idea of krakens delivered by Fonda and the latter being a bumbling, anxious, teenaged welcome to the particular kraken situation as it pertains to the Gillmans delivered by Condor, and I don't think anyone involved realized how these two elevator pitches were going to interact because they slam into each other like two insensate blocks.  The former one, anyway, benefits from some neat visual abstraction by way of bioluminescent animal life swarming about in the sea, which helps it sound more sincere than it probably is; the latter is still quite likely the best foot forward of what will be the predominant strain of comedy in this nominally-comedic film, that is, Ruby and company's contemporary technology-afflicted teen-ness as has been understood by significantly older people and subsequently channeled through the invariably-shrill stylings of a children's animated film.  So maybe they actually nailed contemporary teen-ness, verisimilitude-wise, but it's not funny.

The funniest thing it ever does is that Ruby's emotional stakes are pinned, in large part, on going to prom, which means that the explicit goal of this DreamWorks film is to get Ruby to a dance party.  Though since I doubt it was intentional, maybe that disqualifies it as a laugh-out-loud joke.  That leaves the other laugh-out-loud joke, when an evil, bumbling, kraken-hunting sea captain turns over the conn to his sidekick, a sentient crab, who crabwalks in place on the wheel to turn it, in a way I personally determined to be cute and cartoonishly creative.  For the record, I shall dutifully acknowledge the swipes it takes at The Little Mermaidwhich makes more sense in context with its recently-released live-action remake, I guess, but while I don't mind sneering at The Little Mermaid as such, you might think that honoring the legacy of anti-Disneyness inherited from DWA founder Jeff Katzenberg would not entail so much eagerness to crap on Katzenberg's own single greatest artistic success at Disneybut then, it's not all that eager anyway, for the "swipes" more-or-less top out at "Ariel is in this movie, but she's the villain."  There is that sentient crab, but it isn't in any meaningful sense a parody of Sebastian; and while Chelsea explicitly steals credit for the rescue of our heroine's crush object, this isn't even particularly emphasized, which is bizarre because that feels like the gimme joke, since that's literally the plot of The Little Mermaid.  It's also not a musicalbut it sure as hell has lots of music, in the form of dreadful needle drops, and this is doubly irritating because Stephanie Economou's score, in the parts where it's allowed to exist, is modestly great at putting over the mystic awe of underwater magic, so that it's a terrible pity that this movie, which overrelies outrageously upon "doing a thing" montages (including a rather confusingly put-together cross-cut montage involving training; but then, we've had somewhat bad "editing" for a cartoon all along) still keeps using the most generic temp track pop songs to back these montages, rather than at least having the decency to give them over to the dawning Tangerine Dreamish joyfulness of Economou's music.

As that "dance party" element might indicate, this is a very DreamWorks film, almost in a throwback sort of way, though it's throwing back to an era that I don't think anyone has much nostalgia for, when they'd at least abandoned uncanny photorealism as their aesthetic goal but were still blatantly trying to be Pixar rather than being themselves.  This is an impression that tends to be sealed, even if it's probably deeply unfairanimated features take years to develop, after allby the fact that this movie is basically Turning Red*, by which I mean almost exactly Turning Red, to the extent that if I said "2020s American CG-animated film about a teen daughter who discovers her family's genetic secret when she turns into a mythological beast, whereupon conflict ensues with her overbearing mother, who has her own conflict with an overbearing grandmother," you would remain at a loss to name the movie.

Yet the difference is palpable.  Turning Red is about a director who genuinely fucking despises her mother, for some deeply-seated reason going back to puberty.  Teenage Kraken, meanwhile, is about generational trauma because every movie now is about generational trauma.  Nevertheless, it puts me in a quandary: while the former is definitelypretty much objectively!the more serious artistic expression, the latter isby my own personal, subjective measurementmore enjoyable to watch.  It isn't so recklessly eager to go down blind narrative alleys, nor so intentional about being irritating, and it always feels sturdier and more "animated movie" classical"sturdy" to the point that I'm not one hundred percent sure why Agatha exiled herself from her mother's kingdom, as we only really learn it has something to do with political differences vis-a-vis the successful prosecution of the Great Mermaid War; and it's "sturdy" to the point of near-featurelessness considering that it's not a good thing that talents as diverse as Condor, Collette, and Fonda could probably all have been swapped around and we still would've had more-or-less the same performances, assuming that Collette and Fonda can still do "stereotypical teenage girl screech" without hurting themselvesbut sturdy is still sturdy, and there's never solid twenty minute stretches when I couldn't stand it like Turning Red.  (The other, maybe even more key difference is that the annoying friends here are legitimate tertiary characters, kept well apart from the main arc.)  But as far as "sturdy, but by 'sturdy' I mean 'actually good'" goes, I like how much the movie knows you've gotten ahead of it, twist-wise, giving you time to reflect on Ruby's teenaged naivete; and, remarkably, all the way through it is so relentlessly straightforward about its conflicts that it almost counts as "subversive" in its refusal to subvert anything.

That does leave the visuals, which is what made the difference between a pass and a fail for me, and even then it was a near-run thing; to get the bad out of the way, thank God those human characters are tertiary, because they're abysmal.  The bulk of them are at least going for some idea or another in their uglinessnot that they do much with him, but the goth teen could be a cousin to Chuck Jones's Hugo the Abominable Snowmanbut then there's Connor, who's completely unacceptable.  The closest analogue I can give you for him is, well, you remember that episode of The Simpsons where Mr. Burns was misidentified as an alien?  That's what Ruby's into, I guess.

The kraken characters are much better, starting with the fun rubbery movement of the krakens' spineless bodies that renders their film "a comedy" more than any of its spoken jokes do, and continuing on from there into the ocean, where the color-coded bath toy kaijus they turn into are all pretty winning both as design efforts and as vehicles for wild fantasy action.  (The one salient negative is that they absolutely fucking cheat on animating the action of their gills, which is never visible, and I think the gills themselves are erased from the models, and maybe I wouldn't complain if Ruby didn't mention them upfront and the movie didn't have "gill" in the Goddamn name.)  Well, mermaids do fine, too: the thing that "Chelsea" becomes on behalf of the big battle finale is awesome and threatening, a sort of backlit demon, a black silhouette surrounded by the white glare of fiery "hair" and ornamented with red lines.  They lean into that kaiju influence a lotI'm charmed by the "undercranking" of the "camera" to achieve weightiness, as Eiji Tsubaraya taught themand the movie benefits here from water animation of surprising robustness for DWA.  But long before this, the film's made its biggest priorities known, principally the bursts of light and color and MoonRay diffusion effects of the undersea scenes (and even in the more fog-bound surface scenes!), frequently just psychedelia for its own sake; but I'm impressed most of all by the design of the interiors of the queen's palace, where (for better and worse) everything that's most beautiful about the film winds up, from the dizzying wonderment of the walls that constantly move like the inside of an orrery to the film's single best sequence, which earns that title despite being an expositional infodump, when the queen explains the history of kraken-mermaid tensions by way of a floating panoply of Mesoamerican-ish-styled underwater neon signs.  Whatever the other points of comparison, Turning Red never had one frame that made me sit up and take notice like basically every frame in the kraken kingdom does here.

Not that I'm thrilled.  Hell, it's taking some effort not to be mad at the poor movie, because with its release, along with Pixar's Elemental, two of America's three premier cartoon factories have managed to degrade the whole idea of original animated features by pumping out the laziest version of "original" that each studio could musterand don't think the executives will accept any explanation beyond "original films don't sell"and, as for its own studio, it's saddening to think that at the very moment the wider culture finally recognized, hey, we're in the middle of a real-deal DreamWorks Renaissance, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken came along to strangle it in the clutch of its cold, slimy tentacles.  But that is industrial analysis; as for the movie itself, it's okay, check it out sometime.

Score: 6/10

*Holy mackerel, it's also Luca.


  1. Wow, I had assumed this was based on some YA comic. It's not all that common to get a true original by one of the big animation studios!

    This was in the opposite-of-sweet-spot (bitter spot?) of being slightly too scary-looking for my 6-and-3-year-olds (we can't wait for Trolls 3) and slightly too kiddie-looking to inspire me to get to theaters with my own precious discretionary time. I'll definitely watch it soon, though.

    I'm not especially surprised or even disappointed that it's not a home run, though. Inconsistency has always been a part of the DreamWorks experience.

    Signed, am embarrassing cartoon adult

    1. "Some YA comic"--you made me double-check to be sure.

      I dunno if it would've been too scary unless they'd be frightened by the mermaid's battle form (which, in fairness, isn't unscary, mostly as a result of the backlighting). But you never know with kids, particularly 3 year olds. (At my screening of John Wick 4 somebody's brought a 5 year old. And, you know, I don't even think that's necessarily inappropriate--they're obviously very action-oriented but they're almost annoyingly not bloody--but just the sheer violent movement of it did appear to frighten her enough they had to go home.)

      We're all cartoon adults now.

    2. Seriously, the most inappropriate part of "bringing your kid to John Wick 4 is John Wick 4 is fourteen hours long."