Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken – an inter-generational story that taps into the cultural chorus surrounding teen empowerment

“As a filmmaker, I’ve always been interested in subverting expectations in my storytelling,” says filmmaker Kirk DeMiccos. “When it came to Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, one of the things that excited me most was the opportunity to do just that with the mythology of the krakens and mermaids.

The ocean is a mysterious world—one that land dwellers can only begin to imagine. That world—and the fantastic creatures that make their home beneath the waves—has long been a source of fascination for filmmaker Kirk DeMicco, who directs the film from a screenplay crafted by Emmy-winning South Park producer Pam Brady (Lady Dynamite, The Loop) and Brian C Brown (Briarpatch) & Elliott Diguiseppi (Lucy in the Sky), with additional screenplay material by Meghan Malloy (production consultant, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), MICHAEL Mccullers (The Boss Baby 2: Family Business), KIRK Demicco & Faryn Pearl.

With his fourth animated feature, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, DeMicco borrows the best ideas from folklore and myth to tell the relatable story of a not-so-ordinary teenager who, after discovering a surprising truth about herself and her family lineage, learns to embrace her inner hero.

Traditionally, the kraken has been portrayed as a monstrous creature, something to be feared and avoided at all costs. But in this film, we wanted to explore the idea of krakens as powerful and benevolent protectors of the sea. Similarly, we wanted to take the traditional image of mermaids and turn it on its head, creating a more complex and nuanced mythology that challenged audience expectations.”

Kirk DeMicco (photo: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

The result is a visually stunning, emotionally resonant—and very funny—aquatic coming-of-age tale about a girl searching for a sense of belonging in the world and learning more than she could have ever imagined. “DreamWorks Animation has a long, comic tradition of subverting the hero’s journey, whether it’s an ogre who saves a princess, a panda that becomes a warrior, or a progressive Viking teen and his injured dragon who change the course of their community,” says DreamWorks Animation President Margie Cohn. “Ruby Gillman represents a new chapter to that tradition: a teen girl with unexpected and extraordinary powers.”

Sometimes the hero you are meant to be lies just beneath the surface. DreamWorks Animation dives into the turbulent waters of high school with a hilarious, heartfelt action comedy about a quirky teenager who discovers that she’s part of a legendary royal lineage of mythical sea krakens and that her destiny, in the depths of the oceans, is bigger than she ever dreamed. Sweet, awkward 16-year-old Ruby Gillman (voiced by Lana Condor) is desperate to fit in at Oceanside High, but she mostly just feels invisible. She’s math-tutoring her skater-boy crush (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White), who only seems to admire her for her fractals, and she’s prevented from hanging out with the cool kids at the beach because her over-protective supermom (voiced by Toni Collette), has forbidden Ruby from ever getting in the water. But when she breaks her mom’s #1 rule, Ruby will discover that she is a direct descendant of the warrior kraken queen and is destined to inherit the throne from her commanding grandmother (voiced by Jane Fonda), the Warrior Queen of the Seven Seas. The kraken are sworn to protect the oceans of the world against the vain, power-hungry mermaids who have been battling with the kraken for eons. There’s one major, and immediate, problem with that: The school’s beautiful, popular new girl, Chelsea (voiced by Annie Murphy) just happens to be a mermaid. Ruby will ultimately need to embrace who she is and go big to protect those she loves most.

Ruby’s journey to the screen began in 2019

While early incarnations of the screenplay focused more broadly on the whole Gillman family, the filmmakers eventually homed in on the young heroine as the ideal protagonist for the mythology-inspired adventure.

Ruby embodied the misunderstood kraken, serving as the endearing foil to Chelsea, the wildly popular new girl at Oceanside High who epitomizes the story’s vain, selfish mermaids. “When you’re working with mythological creatures, you’re not bound by the constraints of the real world,” DeMicco says. “You can let your imagination run wild and create creatures that are truly one-of-a-kind. But perhaps even more importantly, I think that mythological creatures allow us to explore fundamental truths about the human experience. Whether it’s the fear of the unknown or the struggle to find our place in the world, these creatures can help us explore these themes in a way that’s both powerful and memorable.”

Producer Kelly Cooney Cilella, who joined the project when it was still in development in 2019, says she was won over by the film’s clever take on traditional myth and the strong familial relationships at its core. “I was excited to be a part of a wholly original film and to build a team that could deliver something special,” Cooney Cilella says. “Immediately, I was drawn to the comedic concept of the movie—flipping the script on what an audience has come to expect from the characters of a kraken and a mermaid and setting that against the backdrop of a high school. What I ultimately fell in love with is the mother-daughter-grandmother relationship and how they evolve throughout the story. Basically, I came for the comedy and stayed for the emotional themes.”

(from left) Ruby Gillman (Lana Condor) and Connor (Jaboukie Young-White) in DreamWorks Animation’s Ruby Gillman Teenage Kraken, directed by Kirk DiMicco.

In looking for an artistic partner who could help shape both the narrative and the film’s tremendous visual style, DeMicco and Cooney Cilella turned to co-director Faryn Pearl, who had initially joined the production as head of story. “Faryn reminded me so much of Ruby,” Cooney Cilella says. “She is a mighty comedic force with a quirky sensibility that completely suits the tone of the movie.” DeMicco adds: “Faryn brought a sense of heart to the story that really helped make it sing. Plus, she’s just super funny, which was absolutely essential for telling this story in a way that was both engaging and relatable.”

Pearl says she felt lucky to be paired with DeMicco for her first co-directing job. “I was a big fan of his work, and his years of experience and expertise guided us through to the finish line,” Pearl says. “His directing style is so open and collaborative, yet declarative; when a hard decision had to be made, he knew exactly what to do. He is a wealth of knowledge and references—I’ve never met someone who has seen so many movies!”

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken beautifully walks the line between character-driven comedy and larger, impactful themes of identity, family responsibility, love, and honest acceptance. When the film opens, Ruby is a charmingly awkward, insecure 16-year-old who spends time with her close-knit group of friends when she’s not tutoring her crush, Connor. She’s desperate to invite him to prom—even if it is a post-colonial patriarchal construct—but her mom, Agatha, has forbidden her to attend. The event is being held on a boat, and if Agatha has one rule, it’s that Ruby cannot go near the water. Which wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t live in Oceanside, where, you know, hanging out on the pier is essentially the number one pastime.

(from left) Ruby Gillman (Lana Condor) and Grandmamah (Jane Fonda) in DreamWorks Animation’s Ruby Gillman Teenage Kraken, directed by Kirk DiMicco.

Still, Ruby, ever the confrontation-avoider, always obeys her mom—until an embarrassing prom-posal goes awry and Ruby jumps into the ocean to rescue Connor from drowning. To her great astonishment, Ruby transforms beneath the water into a giant Kraken. Realizing that her mother hasn’t told her the whole truth about their family, Ruby begins looking for answers about who she really is. Her search leads her to form an ill-advised friendship with Chelsea, who has a secret agenda of her own, and to bond with her larger-than-life Grandmamah, the Kraken Queen, who is only too eager to see Ruby become her successor. But before she can assume the throne, Ruby has a lot to learn. She must find a way to overcome her inner doubt and to come to love and accept herself for who she is, no matter where she is. Only then can she become the authentic hero she was meant to be.

“The film is an inter-generational story that taps into the cultural chorus surrounding teen empowerment,” Cohn says. “We feel that Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, has the potential to become the girl-power movie of the summer, and, we hope, a touchstone for the generations of girls still to come.”

Every aspect of Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken was designed to be epic and awe-inspiring. Director Kirk DeMicco, co-director Faryn Pearl, and producer Kelly Cooney Cilella worked closely with production designer Pierre-Olivier Vincent (How to Train Your Dragon, Flushed Away), an award-winning DreamWorks animation veteran, to develop a vividly imagined, extraordinarily colorful land-and-seascape inspired by the ocean and its creatures. “One of the most exciting things about working with Pierre-Olivier was seeing the way that he brought his unique perspective to the design language of our film,” DeMicco says.