It should surprise no one that Barbie, based on the famous Mattel doll, is a very funny and witty film.
What is surprising, however, is just how feminist and self-aware the film is. Directed by Greta Gerwig from a script she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach, Barbie could have easily just been a fish out of water narrative.
To be clear, it is that, but Barbie is interested in more than simply exploring how an anatomically incorrect woman with impossible body proportions fits into the messy real world. The film’s real thesis is twofold: 1) highlight the impossible and often contradictory expectations to which modern women are held accountable and 2) explore the insidious way that the patriarchy reduces female agency, creates a power hierarchy, and emboldens men to adopt toxic tendencies.
Of course, that doesn’t account for the musical numbers, car chases, slow motion beach battles, innumerable costume changes, self-referential jokes about Barbie’s history, and metacommentary about Robbie’s real life beauty. All that, while simultaneously acting as a capitalist vehicle to Sell.Those.Toys!
It’s a frankly astonishing balancing act, which only occasionally results in some unwieldy pacing issues, particularly as the film moves jumps back and forth between Barbie-Land and the Real World in the lead-up to the film’s climax. Overall, however, the amount of social commentary, wry observations about Mattel’s famed product, and sheer exuberant fun that Gerwig and Baumbach have stuffed into a ~two hour film is really impressive.
Margot Robbie stars as Stereotypical Barbie, the quintessential model whose life is complete and utter perfection. She lives in her dream home in Barbie-Land, spends her days saying hello to every other iteration, dancing, and politely entertaining Ken (Ryan Gosling)’s demands for her attention before wrapping things up with girls night, every night.
Things fall apart when – out of the blue – Barbie begins to question her own mortality. The slip is quickly laughed off, but the problem escalates when her routine is out of whack the following day and <gasp> her perfectly arched feet go flat.
At the behest of the others, Barbie visits Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) who is stuck in the splits, has imperfect makeup and choppy hair, and lives on the outskirts of Barbie-Land. McKinnon is great as the town kook/seer, and she quickly identifies that a rip has developed between worlds. In order to regain her perfect life, Barbie must travel to the Real World and repair her relationship with the girl who played with her.
Fearful of being left behind, Ken tags along on the journey. Together the pair leave behind the female-dominated plastic pastel world where physics don’t apply, and make the trip to the Real World by car, snowmobile, boat, and rocket (the journey is visually presented like a cross between a pop-up book and a side-scroller video game).
The fish out of water stuff is amusing, and brief enough not to overstay its welcome, then the twosome separate so Barbie can track down Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), the dismissive, cynical daughter of Mattel employee Gloria (America Ferrera) to repair the rift. Ken, meanwhile, becomes radicalized by the authority and power of human men, learning all the wrong lessons before returning to corrupt the Kens and Barbies they left behind.
Ken’s machismo montage and its after effects are among the best of Barbie‘s comedic bits, with Gosling acting as the film’s not-so-secret MVP. Robbie is required to do most of the emotional heavy lifting as Barbie faces an existential crisis and while it’s a requirement for the film’s narrative arc, sometimes it feels like Barbie isn’t the focus of her own film. Although Ken’s journey runs parallel to hers, because he’s “just Ken” (as both the film’s tagline and its already iconic third act song states) Gosling is allowed to go to far sillier and more ridiculous places.
Even if the film’s message about identity, choice, and autonomy is ultimately a little facile, it’s important to remember that this is a three quadrant blockbuster* that is ultimately being marketed for (teen) girls, mothers and daughters, and gays; the fact that anything mildly subversive or critical of parent company Mattel made it into the final cut is more than a little bit shocking. 4/5
*Will boys seek this out? Even with the sex appeal of Robbie and the film’s deep bench of stars, it’s hard to imagine this bubblegum blockbuster having broad appeal for (straight) men.
- Of the Kens, which include Kingsley Ben-Adir, Scott Evans and future Doctor Who actor Ncuti Gatwa, Simu Liu fares best as Ken’s #1 adversary. Their much-publicized “beach off” exchange, which escalates into a full-on last act battle sequence, is the stuff of homoerotic dreams.
- Of the Barbies, which includes Hari Nef, Emma Mackey, and Sharon Rooney, it’s Alexandra Shipp (as Writer Barbie) and Issa Rae (as President Barbie) who get the most to do/best bits. Considering how many actors the film has, it’s impressive that anyone other than Robbie and Gosling makes an impression.
- Arguably the best recurring bit involves Mattel’s less popular and/or discontinued dolls, such as pregnant Midge (filmmaker Emerald Fennell) and Ken’s queer coded, effeminate best friend Allan (played perfectly by Michael Cera).
- Rhea Perlman‘s brief scenes as Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, definitely veer into sentimentality, but they provide the heart right when the film needs it most.
- In addition to Gatwa and Mackey, Connor Swindells appears as Aaron Dinkins, a Mattel intern, proving that casting directors Lucy Bevan and Allison Jones are *big* fans of Sex Education.
- As the Narrator, Helen Mirren doesn’t get a ton to do, but her dry, droll delivery (and that one joke about casting Margot Robbie) are quite welcome.
- Finally, Will Ferrell plays the CEO of Mattel in a very Will Ferrell role. That is to say: he’s fine. The joke about top female executives working at Mattel, though? Sublime. It cannot be overstated how wild it is that Mattel gave the sign-off for so much self-deprecating humour.
Barbie is in theaters July 21