Review: ‘The Prank’ (2024), starring Connor Kalopsis, Ramona Young, Meredith Salenger, Kate Flannery, Keith David and Rita Moreno

March 16, 2024

by Carla Hay

Connor Kalopsis and Ramona Young in “The Prank” (Photo courtesy of Iconic Events)

“The Prank” (2024)

Directed by Maureen Bharoocha

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the comedy film “The Prank” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latin people, Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two teenagers, who are in their last year of high school, spread stories about their physics teacher being a murderer, after she threatens to flunk them and the rest of the physics class. 

Culture Audience: “The Prank” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Rita Moreno or teen-oriented dark comedies that have ridiculous plots.

Rita Moreno in “The Prank” (Photo courtesy of Iconic Events)

“The Prank” is a bad joke on anyone expecting it to be a good comedy. This awful dud has very few redeeming qualities, such as Rita Moreno, who deserves better than this garbage. The plot twists get worse as the movie fumbles along to a horrible ending.

Directed by Maureen Bharoocha, “The Prank” was written by Rebecca Flinn-White and Zak White. The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film and TV Festival. Considering that this sloppy and unfunny movie often looks like a student film, the filmmakers should consider themselves lucky that it was allowed at a high-profile and influential festival such as SXSW.

In “The Prank,” which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city, best friends Ben Palmer (played by Connor Kalopsis) and Mei Tanner (played by Ramona Young)—who just goes by the name Tanner—are just a few months away from graduating from West Greenview High School. (“The Prank” was actually filmed in California.) In the school’s social hierarchy of students, Ben and Tanner are somewhat outsiders. Ben is nerdy and uptight, while Tanner is a freewheeling mischief maker. In her free time, she likes to engage in computer hacking. Tanner has also recently concocted a scheme to sell fake IDs that she made for underage teens.

An opening scene in the movie shows Ben’s home, where several academic awards that Ben has won are displayed on walls. Ben is an only child who lives with his supportive mother Julie Palmer (played by Meredith Salenger), who is a recent widow, because Ben’s father died six months prior to this story taking place. His father’s death is just a plot device to give Ben a motive to achieve his immediate goal of attending his father’s alma mater university, as a way to emulate and pay tribute to his father.

Ben is very stressed-out because he will consider himself to be a failure if he can’t enroll in his father’s alma mater university. The problem is that Ben won’t be able to enroll in this university unless he gets a full academic scholarship, which directly hinges on him maintaining the excellent grades that he’s had for the academic year. Ben and Tanner are students in the same advance-placement (AP) physics class, which is taught by Mrs. Helen Wheeler (played by Moreno), who has a longtime reputation for being very tough and insulting—not just with her students but also with just about everyone.

One day, Mrs. Wheeler announces to the class (which has 28 students) that she knows that someone has cheated on the most recent exam that she gave. Mrs. Wheeler says that if the cheater does not confess before the end of the school year, then she will give everyone in the class a failing grade. The students are very upset, but no one comes forward to confess. By the way, Mrs. Wheeler always wears black leather gloves—a quirk that is poorly explained during one of the movie’s stupid plot twists.

Word quickly spreads around the school about Mrs. Wheeler’s controversial ultimatum. In the faculty lounge, a teacher named Mrs. Gutierrez (played by Betsy Sodaro, who starred in director Bharoocha’s 2021 comedy film “Golden Arm”) asks Mrs. Wheeler if Mrs. Wheeler is really allowed to flunk an entire class just because one person cheated on an exam. Mrs. Wheeler haughtily replies, “If I allow a cheater to succeed, then I’ve failed!”

What does the school principal have to say about this extreme tactic by Mrs. Wheeler? Principal Henderson (played by Keith David, in a thankless role that doesn’t get much screen time) unrealistically doesn’t have much to say about it, even though he should. He has a tension-filled relationship with Mrs. Wheeler because they don’t like each other very much. Even though Principal Henderson is Mrs. Wheeler’s boss, he seems to be a little bit afraid of her.

Meanwhile, Ben’s anxiety increases because he knows failing Mrs. Wheeler’s class will ruin his chances of getting the scholarship to his first-choice university. Tanner jokingly suggests that they get Mrs. Wheeler fired by spreading stories about Mrs. Wheeler being responsible for the disappearance of a missing student named Wayne Lambert (played by Alexander Morales), who had a reputation for being a heavy drug user. Tanner describes an elaborate plan where Tanner would create phony email messages and fake photos to make it look like Mrs. Wheeler was having a secret affair with Wayne.

Ben is very reluctant to go along with this idea. “Isn’t it illegal?” he nervously asks Tanner. But it’s too late: Tanner has already posted her fake “evidence” on various social media platforms, so that everything can go viral. It doesn’t take long for the local news media to pick up the story. Mrs. Wheeler’s defiant reaction is to proclaim her innocence and double-down on the threat to flunk her entire physics class, because she’s certain that someone in the class planted this story as revenge.

Mrs. Wheeler’s reaction enrages Tanner, who then encourages people to think that Mrs. Wheeler not only murdered Wayne but also other students from the school who have gone missing over the years. The planted stories spiral out of control, thanks to irresponsible media people who don’t do any real investigations. A few of the TV reporters state on the air that they believe that Mrs. Wheeler is probably a murderer because she was mean to them when she was their teacher. The school’s biggest student gossip Phillip Marlow (played by Nathan Janak), who is obsessed with social media, also enthusiastically spreads the stories.

Ben, Tanner and Phillip are the only students who are given memorable personalities in the movie. Most of the other people at the school who have lines of dialogue are hollow, one-dimensional characters. Loretta (played by Kate Flannery) is a server at the school’s cafeteria. Tanner has an ongoing gripe that Loretta will only serve an allotted two strips of fried chicken per person for each lunch meal. When Tanner complains to Loretta about this serving limit, Loretta says she’s just following the cafeteria rules. A school janitor name Joe (played by Jonathan Kimmel) shows up at awkward times.

Tanner’s despicable actions and Ben eventually going along and participating make these two misguided students very difficult characters to like, even though “The Prank” obviously wants viewers to root for Ben and Tanner. But then, “The Prank” goes off in moronic directions in trying too hard to redeem Ben and Tanner for what they did to ruin Mrs. Wheeler’s reputation. The last third of this wretched story almost becomes a parody of a horror movie.

“The Prank” tries to be clever in ways that don’t really matter. Helen Wheeler is a play on words for the phrase “hell on wheels.” And gossipy student Phillip Marlow acts like he’s some kind of detective in trying to investigate the murder accusations against Mrs. Wheeler. Will a lot of viewers of “The Prank” really care that his name is spelled almost like famous fictional detective Philip Marlowe? No.

Moreno seems to be having some campy fun in portraying the obnoxious and sour-tempered Mrs. Wheeler. However, the performances from the younger cast members are often amateurish and very irritating. It might seem like an advantage to have a talented, Oscar-winning cast member such as Moreno in the movie, but when most of her co-stars aren’t even close to having Moreno’s level of acting skills, this discrepancy actually makes the movie look worse. What really makes “The Prank” an utter failure is the disjointed and idiotic screenplay, which stinks up the screen more than Mrs. Wheeler’s nasty attitude ever could.

Iconic Events released “The Prank” in select U.S. cinemas on March 15, 2024.

Review: ‘Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken,’ starring the voices of Lana Condor, Annie Murphy, Toni Collette, Sam Richardson, Will Forte, Colman Domingo and Jane Fonda

June 29, 2023

by Carla Hay

Chelsea Van Der Zee (voiced by Annie Murphy) and Ruby Gillman (voiced by Lana Condor) in “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken”

Directed by Kirk DeMicco

Culture Representation: Taking place in the U.S. city of Oceanside, the animated film “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” features a cast of characters depicting humans, krakens and mermaids.

Culture Clash: A female teenage Kraken, whose family has been hiding its kraken identity from humans, uncovers an ancient legacy when a rival new student enrolls in her school. 

Culture Audience: “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” will appeal primarily to people who want to see reliably entertaining animated films with simple messages about self-confidence and being yourself.

Pictured from left to right: Trevin (voiced by Eduardo Franco), Margot (foreground, voiced by Liza Koshy), Bliss (voiced by Ramona Young), Ruby Gillman (voiced by Lana Condor) and Connor (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White) in “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” does what it’s supposed to do as a family-oriented animated film. The story and visuals are appealing, but improvement was needed in world building and explaining various characters’ backstories much earlier in the movie. If you don’t know what a kraken is and have no interest in finding out, then skip this movie. Everyone else will at least be mildly entertained by this animated movie that is adequate but not a classic.

Directed by Kirk DeMicco, “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” has an over-used story of a teenage girl trying to fit in at her school while having a crush on a boy whom she wants to date. However, the movie should be commended for at least taking a unique and darking approach of making a kraken family at the center of the story. It’s something that no animated film from a major Hollywood studio has ever done before. Pam Brady, Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi wrote the screenplay for “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken,” with additional screenplay material written by DeMicco, Meghan Malloy and Michael McCullers.

A kraken is a giant mythical sea monster whose origins are off of the coast of Norway. In “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken,” 16-year-old Ruby Gillman (voiced by Lana Condor) and her family are living “under the radar” in the U.S. city of Oceanside, by having the appearance of humans and trying fit in as human beings. What’s kind of silly about the movie is that the members of this kraken family all have blue skin, which makes it obvious that they’re not human. It would look worse in a live-action film, but in an animated film, there’s more room for suspension of disbelief.

Ruby is intelligent and compassionate, but she insecure about her physical appearance, and she has a slightly goofy personality. Her overprotective mother Agatha Gillman (voiced by Toni Collette) is a successful real-estate agent who dominates the household and is the main parental disciplinarian. Ruby’s laid-back father Arthur Gillman (voiced by Colman Domingo) is much more lenient and understanding of Ruby’s curiosity. Also in the household is Ruby’s 7-year-old brother Sam Gillman (voiced by Blue Chapman), who has the “cute kid” role in the movie.

Agatha and Arthur know that their family is “different,” but they have instilled the attitude in their children that they must blend in with humans as much as possible. Agatha’s number-one rule for her children (especially Ruby) s that they must never go inside or near a large body of water. Needless to say, Agatha is horrified and disapproving when Ruby says she’s interested in studying marine biology for a possible career.

Ruby attends Oceanside High School, where she has a small circle of three friends who are all considered “misfits,” just like Ruby. Margot (voiced by Liza Koshy), who is queer or a lesbian, loves musical theater and is the most talkative and outspoken of the friends. Trevin (voiced by Eduardo Franco), the quietest of the group, is addicted to playing hand-held video games. Bliss (voiced by Ramona Young) is moody, sarcastic, and dresses like a nerdy Goth.

Ruby prides herself on being a “mathlete”—someone who excels at math and at being an athlete. She has a big crush on a fellow student whom she’s tutoring in math. His name is Connor (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White), who is a free-spirited skateboarder. The school’s prom is coming up. Ruby, Connor, and Ruby’s friends all think the concept of a prom is a “post-colonial patriarchal construct” that they think is very uncool.

However, Margot ends up changing her mind about boycotting the school’s prom when her girl crush asks Margo to be her prom date. Trevin and Bliss then want to go to the school’s prom too. Feeling left out, Ruby decides she wants to also attend the prom, with Connor as her date. Ruby tries to work up the courage to ask Connor, who’s attracted to her, but Ruby isn’t seeing the obvious signs of this attraction.

The added allure for Ruby to go to the prom is that it will be an act of rebellion against her mother. As soon as Agatha found out that the prom will take place in a building that’s near the ocean, she forbade Ruby from going. Margot, Trevin and Bliss convince Ruby that she shouldn’t be so afraid of getting her mother’s disapproval for something that should be a fun and positive experience for Ruby. These three pals tells Ruby that she should lie to Agatha about where she is going on the prom night and go to the prom instead.

Shortly before Ruby decides she’s going to ask Connor to be her prom date, he accidentally falls into the ocean and almost drowns. Ruby dives in to rescues him. And that’s when Ruby finds out that she can turn into a giant kraken. She’s horrified and now knows why her mother Agatha forbade her to go into any large body of water. Connor is unconscious and doesn’t see who rescued him. After a short stay in a hospital, he is released.

Meanwhile, there’s a new student at Oceanside High School: a confident, physically attractive redhead named Chelsea Van Der Zee (played by Annie Murphy), who witnessed this rescue and knows that Ruby wants to keep Ruby’s kraken identity a secret. And so, Chelsea takes credit for rescuing Connor. People believe Chelsea’s fabricated “hero” story, and she immediately becomes popular. As already shown in the “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” trailers, Chelsea has a secret identity too: She’s really a mermaid.

There are more Gillman family secrets that are revealed to Ruby, including a longtime feud between mermaids and krakens. Agatha’s bold and confident mother, whose only name in the movie is Grandmamah (voiced by Jane Fonda), comes from a long line of kraken warrior queens. Grandmamah is estranged from Agatha, who refused to follow in her mother’s footsteps.

Ruby also finds out that 15 years earlier, there was a Battle of the Tridents, where mermaids were defeated and went into hiding. There’s an all-powerful trident that mermaids and krakens have been battling over for several generations. When Ruby decides she’s going to embrace her kraken heritage and asks Grandmamah to mentor her, you can easily guess what the movie’s big showdown will be.

Other featured characters in this movie includes a local tour guide Gordon Lighthouse (voiced by Will Forte), who has a boat and who believes that krakens are very dangerous for people. Brill voiced by Sam Richardson) is Agatha’s younger brother, who is earnest and dorky. He’s the type who wears Hawaiian shirts, shorts and sandals with socks. Brill ends up getting involved in some of Ruby’s adventures.

“Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” has some explanations about kraken and mermaid lore in the middle of the movie, when those explanations should have been earlier in the film. The characters of Ruby, Agatha and Grandmamah have well-defined personalities, but some other characters (such as Sam and Bliss) don’t do much except take up space. Other characters (such as “cool love interest” Connor, “mean girl” Chelsea and “meddling neighbor” Gordon) are the types of characters that have been in many other types of scripted entertainment.

Some viewers might compare “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” to the 2022 Oscar-nominated Pixar movie “Turning Red” because there are some striking similarities. “Turning Red” is a much better movie overall, but “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” isn’t an intentional ripoff. “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” was in development for years prior to it getting made, so any similarities to “Turning Red” are coincidental.

Everything in “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” is just fine or average, but not so terrible that it feels like a complete waste of time to watch it. There’s a jumbled explanation of the Battle of the Tridents, but it’s not so confusing that viewers will feel lost. At the very least, anyone who watches “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” will see a teenage heroine who is very different from the usual teenage heroines in other animated films.

Universal Pictures will release “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” in U.S. cinemas on June 30, 2023.

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