“Gillman” tells the story of the titular Ruby (voice of Lana Condor), a teenager who lives with her family in a bustling seaside town. She, as well as her mom, dad and brother, are all secretly krakens, or sea monsters, an identity they’ve kept hidden from the world. Ruby is aware that her family is different to some extent, and she obeys the family’s two major rules: (1) Never go in the water, and (2) if someone asks why she’s blue, tell them she’s Canadian. (They live at the shore because they need the damp air. One shudders to think what a summer in Wichita would do to them.)
Ruby’s life is pretty good — she has a nice group of friends, a loving family, and a knack for math that has led her to tutor Connor (Jaboukie Young-White), a classmate who is also the object of her crush. One day, she inadvertently ends up in the ocean and discovers that she is, in fact, a giant, mythical sea creature. Not only that, but she’s heir to the throne that her grandmother (Jane Fonda) currently occupies, which is under threat from the evil mermaids, who have managed to rehabilitate their reputation as ship-sinking, sailor-seducing songstresses by being both pretty and extremely marketable. Maybe this is why we never see little girls dressed up as giant cephalopods at Halloween. Tentacles don’t sell the way seashell bras do.
There’s much to like about Ruby, just as there’s much to like about “Ruby Gillman.” The voice acting is excellent all around, including Condor; Toni Collette as Ruby’s mom, a high-powered real estate agent; and Liza Koshy as Ruby’s overly dramatic, hysterically funny friend Margot. Ruby’s physicality subtly re-creates the way teenage girls can contort their bodies in an attempt to hide their perceived physical “flaws,” and there are scenes of the ocean that perfectly encapsulate Ruby’s mixed feelings about it: both fear and attraction. Then there’s the final battle: a spoiled-in-the trailer showdown between Ruby and her mermaid rival, Chelsea (Annie Murphy). It’s something to see: a neon-lit, swooping depiction of controlled chaos. The female-centric soundtrack is also a winner.
Even the film’s weakest element — the screenplay, by Pam Brady, Elliott DiGuiseppi, Brian Brown and co-director Kirk DeMicco — isn’t that bad. The “twist” is an easy one to spot, and the straightforward plot briskly marches to a conclusion that’s easily predicted. Characters’ motivations are sometimes hazy, and there’s a lack of emotional depth, but “Ruby Gillman” isn’t a movie that’s punching above its weight class. It’s here to tell a story, which it does simply and well, and that’s it.
You want brilliance? Go see “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” again.
Although Ruby is 16, most of the film is suitable for even younger moviegoers, while some of the ocean scenes may be a bit scary for the under-7 crowd. Preteens and teens, however, will enjoy the film’s clever hat tips to social media, and Ruby’s classmates include some who are not straight.
On the whole, “Ruby Gillman” is not all that dissimilar from last year’s “Turning Red” in that it’s a story of a girl coming to terms with her familial and personal history, told through an engaging, endearing, shape-shifting protagonist. While it breaks no new ground and doesn’t soar to great heights, it’s a perfectly fine way to pass the time. And sometimes that’s just what you need.
PG. At area theaters. Contains some action, rude humor and mature thematic elements. 90 minutes.