Salt Life

Directed by Kirk DeMicco

Starring Lana Condor, Toni Collette, Jane Fonda

Released June 30th, 2023

Rated PG

The Gillmans are a family of Kraken living surreptitiously on land among us humans. With their tentacles, skeletal-free bodies, and blue skin, they don’t look human at all, but nobody seems to mind. The Gillmans tell everyone that they are from Canada, and this is enough of an explanation to satiate their community’s fleeting curiosity. I found this to be one of the more delightful elements of Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken. It’s the kind of easygoing suspension of disbelief that comic book readers have exercised for years, as a cowl or eye mask wouldn’t effectively hide anyone’s identity, and all Clark Kent has to do to turn into Superman is take off his glasses. 

As the title makes clear, the kraken Ruby Gillman (Lana Condor) is a teenager. She’s a bundle of emotions and energy. She’s a mathlete. She’s got a close group of (human) friends. She’s got a crush on a (human) boy named Connor (Jaboukie Young-White). Everyone at Oceanside high school is obsessed with the upcoming Junior Prom, and the promposals are in full swing. As is the case with many contemporary animated films, there is LGBTQIA+ representation in the movie. And with the budding relationship between Ruby and Connor, it seems that in this universe there’s no issue with interspecies romance. Ruby musters up the courage to ask Connor to prom, but after a confetti cannon misfire (just watch the movie, it will make sense), Connor is knocked into the sea.

Ruby’s kraken mother Agatha (Toni Collette) has made it clear that her family is to avoid the ocean. When Ruby jumps in to rescue Connor, she finds out why. When her body comes into contact with water, it changes color and shape as she turns into a giant monster. After saving Connor, she retreats to a lighthouse where she is found by her mother who explains their family history. We learn that the women in the Gillman family all share this trait, and Ruby heads back into the sea to learn more from the grandmother she’s never met. 

Grandmamah (Jane Fonda) is excited to finally meet Ruby, telling her that she’s in line to become the Queen of the Sea. We learn that krakens have fought a war against mermaids for generations over ocean dominion, and there is a missing trident that could turn the tide of this conflict. Meanwhile a new student at Oceanside High, Chelsea (Annie Murphy), takes credit for Connor’s rescue. Chelsea is confident, flame-haired, and secretly a mermaid. She and Ruby eventually become secret sea besties, even though their species are not supposed to be friends. 

Lana Condor and Toni Collette prove to be strong voice actors, and Annie Murphy steals the show as Chelsea the little mermaid. The always welcome Will Forte voices the cleverly named Gordon Lighthouse, an old sea dog with a pet crab who is determined to capture a kraken. I guess Jane Fonda is fine as Grandmamah, but her voice seems to be mixed louder than the rest of the cast and I found that disconcerting. 

There are many moments set to upbeat female-fronted pop music. These scenes are plentiful and come across like short music videos or TikTok clips meant to go viral. Highlights include a pair of tracks from The Linda Lindas and Rita Ora providing vocals for a version of Fatboy Slim’s Praise You.

Ruby’s seaside town looks impressive, with interesting interiors and expressive exteriors that recall the set design of Robert Altman’s Popeye. The character designs for the kraken and the mermaids, both on land and in the water, are inspired. I can’t say the same for the plot. The script is the weakest element, with a relatively low stakes story that doesn’t offer audiences of teen movies anything new. Ruby’s journey feels like a mashup of John Hughes’ oeuvre with 1985’s Teen Wolf. The film’s story may not be groundbreaking, but at least it’s a fast-moving movie with colorful visuals, a few scenes of fighting kaiju, and brief references to Godzilla and Cthulhu. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken becomes a tween movie favorite. Dreamworks has come to be quite a respected animation studio by younger audiences in much the same way that Pixar was held in high regard years ago. Case in point: my twelve-year-old son considers this film to be a better version of Pixar’s Turning Red.