'Barbie' review: Iconic doll gets molded into an unforgettable summer smash
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
It’s remarkable that, in our IP driven world where products sell movie tickets, no studio had tried cracking the Barbie code. Maybe that’s how Mattel, the company which manufactures the iconic doll, wanted it, or perhaps it was because no filmmaker was brave enough to tackle the complicated history of Barbie in a way that could make sense in 2023. But there’s only one Greta Gerwig and if any director could convince a major studio to fork over a truckload of cash and disguise a movie based on the world’s most instantly recognizable doll as a thoughtful (and rollicking) meditation on gender norms, what it means to be a human, and fragile masculinity while also doubling as an homage to “An American in Paris” and “Singin’ in the Rain” (complete with dream ballets!) it would be her.
Seriously, it’s a miracle Gerwig’s “Barbie” exists in the way it does: a studio picture that spins its premise in numerous “I-can't-believe-they-did-that” creative directions with phrases like “stereotypical Barbie,” running Matchbox Twenty gags, and more than a few jabs at Mattel’s troubled past with the famed doll, including one iteration that saw Barbie’s chest enlarge when you raised her arm.
In other words, it’s a blowout smash and the biggest surprise of the season, led with the year’s most hellacious cast, including Margot Robbie playing the main version of Barbie and Ryan Gosling in a scene stealing, award worthy turn as her right-hand man Ken.
In less capable hands, “Barbie” could’ve become the next “Battleship,” wherein you build a premise from scratch and completely miss the point of what made the game (or in this case, dolls) enjoyable. Barbie is an icon because she represents everyone from all walks of life. You want to be a supreme court justice? You got it! How about a doctor or astronaut? Hell, you can even be the president! It’s that angle, along with a heaping dose of existentialism that’ll fly right over the heads of youngsters in attendance, Gerwig and husband/co-writer Noah Baumbach decide to explore amid a movie plastic wrapped for the generation of adults who grew up trying to picture themselves in a Barbie perfect utopia; or maybe felt the doll’s pristine figure and blonde hair projected an image they could never live up too. Which is why Gerwig’s “Barbie” is far more than just a shameless toy commercial, in fact, it pokes fun at both the studio and Mattel at several points throughout the movie to the point where it casts Will Ferrell as the company’s bumbling CEO who thinks making toys for little girls to feel good about themselves is enough goodwill for a lifetime.
“Barbie'' takes place in two realms: “Barbie-Land,” and “Real World.” The latter being a joyous playland, described in the opening narration as a place where gender disparity has been solved, and it's also where Gerwig and production designer Sarah Greenwood have made it look like a picturesque storybook outfitted in vibrant colors that’re reminiscent of the early CinemaScope days. There’s no CGI in sight and it makes for a glorious landscape where Barbie and her various iterations rule the area. It’s not just Robbie’s stereotypical version, but there’s hundreds of them, including President Barbie, Nobel Peace Prize Barbie, and even construction worker Barbie! They are played by Issa Rae, Emma Mackey, Hari Nerf, Nicola Coughlan and, to a lesser extent, pop star Dua Lipa. In Barbie-Land, the Barbie’s party all day and each night is girls night. Sometimes it’s accompanied by an upbeat Lizzo tune that expresses what the Barbie’s are feeling
On the flip side are the Ken’s, led by Gosling’s puppy dog innocence and who radiates a level of comic charisma rarely seen from the actor. He almost steals the whole damn show alongside a litany of other Ken's (played by Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, and Ncuti Gatway). There’s also Michael Cera’s displaced Allan, the discontinued/awkward Mattel figure made only to be Ken’s best friend. In Barbie-Land, Ken's primary ego-driven objective is to be seen by the other Barbie’s and their jobs aren’t as lavish compared to their female counterparts. For example, Gosling’s Ken has a profession that’s just “beach” (not to be confused with a lifeguard). Gerwig’s tongue-and-cheek nod to the gender role reversals aren’t lost on the viewer and it only gets more outrageous when Barbie begins to have an internal crisis, which begins when her signature pointed feet go flat. Oh no!
Thanks to the sage advice from Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon - hilarious), Barbie learns she must travel to the real world and find out what’s causing all her strange dilemmas and complicated thoughts: like thinking about death and an overwhelming feeling of sadness. With Ken in tow, the pair leave their glossy (and ultra-pink) homestead behind in favor of Century City, California where it becomes obvious women don’t rule the world and Barbie isn’t the epitome of female empowerment she had always assumed (in one scene she’s called a fascist). Here, Barbie and Ken go on, let’s say, very different journeys of self-discovery. Barbie understands what it really means to be a women and Ken basks in the foundation of patriarchies. Even though he probably doesn’t fully comprehend what those principal’s mean.
Barbie eventually collides with lowly Mattel executive Gloria (America Ferrera - outstanding) and her daughter, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) who all share a common connection that won’t be spoiled here, but their journey leads them back to Barbie-Land where the influences of the real world start to mesh with the gender dynamics which have existed in that realm for generations. Paving way for Ferrara to give a standout monologue late in the film where she passionately breaks down societal standards when it comes to women in the workforce and the unrealistic expectations thrusted upon them. It’s not preachy or condescending either, rather, it’s presented in a meaningful way that inadvertently redefines the Barbie brand and audiences will devour that message. Girl power for the win!
That Gerwig manages to blend these themes seamlessly proves there was no other person for the gig. The “Lady Bird” and “Little Women” director keeps it light and breezy amid those occasionally complex conversations, but also delivers a wonderful shot of sparkle-fueled adrenaline in what has been, outside a few exceptions, somewhat of a lackluster summer movie going season.
“Barbie” is the movie our world needs right now.
BARBIE opens in theaters everywhere Friday, July 21st.