The boy in front of us turned around. My daughter and niece were talking about the new The Little Mermaid. How much they like the new Ariel. This was the only cue the boy needed to have the one conversation he wanted, that he came to the movie to have, that he rehearsed in his brain when he found out what movie he was going to. It was one uninterrupted stream of consciousness, the only words the boy said in the 30 minutes before the movie, during the movie, and immediately after. He said, “You see the red-headed mermaid up there? That is a shot at Disney’s Mermaid. This story is about how evil she is. I watch all the Dreamworks movies and don’t watch Disney. That’s what I’m here for.”
What are we here for? That’s the most pertinent question to ask when watching Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, an audience-specific inversion, on the face of things, of what The Little Mermaid is about. See, my daughter and niece liked Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken. It was for them and it was delivered directly to them, as though in a specialized box that says, “this is only for you.” That kind of specificity is good when you’re a young kid, I reckon. Likewise, it’s equally good if you’re just here for major animation studio infighting and want to watch a mermaid get wrecked.
It’s not so good if you’re just a Dad and you’ve watched all the movies already anyway and this is just another movie. Because I am more in for the medium of animation and not the simple twist on the fairytale, this middle-range Dreamworks had less to offer for a tired Dad. It had less to offer than the exceptional and high-range Dreamworks we got with the last Puss in Boots. Seriously, that’s just a good movie and gives everyone what they came for. This presents another possibility for the animated film: perhaps some of the movies your studio puts out are less expensive to make and can serve as mild counter-programming to major passion projects like the new Spider-Man, only needing to make a fraction of the dough. There is no competition in middle-range animated films at the moment. They could come out all the time and sometimes even make their money back.
There is a message here. Don’t judge others based on their appearance. Shouldn’t you just endorse a movie like that, asked my wife. I could and it would be more pleasant to do that. I’m not going to do that anyway. There is the possibility this is the new critical position on movies, wherein there is pressure to approve of good messages whether or not you think the movie is successful. But I don’t want to persuade any like-minded parents that they are going to have a good time when the movie doesn’t offer that. It’s such a tepid and small-scale adventure that seems to wrap up just as it gets going. Good for time management, bad for parents choosing a different movie to watch and dropping off their kids, when all other movies are three hours long. So, there is something of moral value here, a kindness to the movie.
Teenage Kraken is animated so darkly that nothing seems to pop off the screen. Even the events that should be exciting for anyone kind of fizzle out. The kaiju-sized krakens and mermaids are just uninteresting to look at. The school of character design here is that characters correspond to some colors and they’re just whatever basic template their original design holds. Nothing interesting happens with the film’s animation which is always a difficult note, because you can do anything here, the medium is not squared into this box where it cannot morph into some crazier designs.
We’ve also been here before. There are a couple of better recent movies that do the same thing. Pixar’s Turning Red (2022) and Luca (2021), if crushed together and drained of style, would play something like Teenage Kraken. That’s the kind of story it is, a transformation fable for young kids going through puberty, about generational differences, and not having to hide who you are. That your changing self is beautiful even while it is changing and still worth sharing with the world. And not to judge someone for how they are developing as a person. So, there’s an idea there and it’s an evergreen one that isn’t just shut out because many other animated films have done the same thing lately. It’s just that this one didn’t move me in any way and felt so flat and passionless, that there is room for a more bespoke formula.
When we leave our critic screenings we have to give a quick blurb for the studios. I said something like, “It was devastating and empty,” and my daughter and niece apologized to me and said that they liked it and just to put that down. We continued our conversation on the way to the car. It’s all about what you have come for. I wanted majestically illustrated krakens and luminous mermaids that filled the screen with awe! I wanted to feel something deeper. I wanted the Luca and Turning Red we had at home.
That’s when my daughter delivered the most cutting critique, “Luca is devastating and empty.” Movies are about what we are here for.