Of all the super-successful properties that could be made into an interesting movie, Barbie would be pretty low on my list. While the brand is iconic, the character is her accessories: her clothes, the professions that go with them, her dream house and her car. There have been animated Barbie adventures made for girls and it seems like that would basically be the cinematic ceiling for a property with no depth to it. Well, nobody told that to Greta Gerwig. Clearly, the director/cowriter saw a much more intriguing path for Barbie and sprinted down it. The result is a deconstruction of what the toy represents, as well as a love letter to it. It is a smart, thoughtful, satire and a hilariously silly comedy. It is shocking that these phrases accurately describe a Barbie movie. Kudos to everyone involved for taking a big swing on this and connecting impressively.
Though the pink imagery in the advertising materials, coupled with the brand itself, seems to suggest that the audience for this is little girls and their mothers who used to play with these dolls, this is not for kids (the PG-13 rating feels appropriate, even if some of the jokes/commentary may go over the heads of a lot of the younger audience members). It uses the cute, bubbly, superficially perfect, world from the toys for gags about consumerism and gender roles, before sending the characters into the real world for fish-out-of-water comedy about the patriarchy and the backlash against Barbie. This is strangely heady stuff for a star-studded summer blockbuster adapted from a line of dolls.
The screenplay (cowritten by Noah Baumbach) is very clever, the cast is fantastic and Gerwig balances the positives/negatives of what the title character says to/about women. This is ridiculously ambitious for what it is. Mattel could have just produced a movie about Barbie and her perfectly idealized life. It would have had its audience (mostly the aforementioned little girls and their mothers who used to play with these dolls) and probably made good money. Instead, they chose to put the property in the hands of someone with a lot to say about it. They made a great choice.
The story begins in Barbie Land, where everything is amazing. Barbie spends each day partying with her friends, getting whatever she could possibly want. When things start suddenly going wrong, she is told that she must travel to the real world, find the girl who is playing with her and fix the problem, or Barbie Land will never be the same.
In short, Barbie has an existential crisis, forcing her to figure out who she is as a woman. She is accompanied by Ken, who was created to be with her and thus has no identity besides being the “Ken” in “Barbie and Ken.” Neither of them truly knows who they are and the real world makes them question everything they thought they understood about themselves. There is a lot of insight mixed in with all the humor.
The cast is great, but I don’t want to spoil some of the cameos, so I will focus on the two leads. Margot Robbie is a wonderful choice for Barbie and not only because she looks the part. She finds the character’s innocence, without making her seem dumb. She sincerely believes she has played a role in making the world better for women. Robbie has excellent comic timing and really gets the story Gerwig is trying to tell.
As Ken, Ryan Gosling is getting well-deserved buzz. He is hilarious as a clueless man who gets entirely the wrong message from his journey. His performance is goofy, but not broad. If Ken knew how funny he was, the joke would die. Gosling isn’t necessarily known for comedy; however, just like Robbie, he understands what they are doing here and goes for it.
Barbie (107 minutes, without the end credits) could turn out to be the unexpectedly massive commercial/critical hit of the season. It appeals to fans with some fan-service and lots of references (it seemed that way, anyway; I know nothing about this universe). It appeals to general moviegoers with stars and a funny trailer. It appeals to critics by using the subject matter to analyze modern society. Who would have thought that a movie about a doll could be a crossover success? Apparently, Greta Gerwig. There is no way I would’ve expected to be ending my review of Barbie by calling it fascinating and very entertaining, yet here we are.
4 out of 5
Margot Robbie as Barbie
Ryan Gosling as Ken
Kate McKinnon as Barbie
Issa Rae as Barbie
Alexandra Shipp as Barbie
Simu Liu as Ken
Kingsley Ben-Adir as Ken
America Ferrera as Gloria
Ariana Greenblatt as Sasha
Michael Cera as Allan
Will Ferrell as Mattel CEO
Rhea Perlman as Ruth
Directed by Greta Gerwig
Written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach