In this age of franchise IP, it’s surprising that it took this long to make a movie about one of the biggest toy lines in history, the Barbie doll. It’s even more surprising that toy maker Mattel has allowed director Greta Gerwig (and her co-writer and husband, Noah Baumbach) to take such incredible liberties with how they approached the material.
In the movie, Barbie (Margo Robbie) lives in her happy place, Barbieland, run by brilliant, fashionable women, all named Barbie. But when she starts having thoughts of death, she leaves Barbieland with Ken (Ryan Gosling) in tow to find out what is wrong with her. She heads to our world and quickly discovers that it’s ruled by the patriarchy, which leads to further problems.
The set and costume design are amazing, especially when they’re in the dazzling pink wonder world that is Barbieland. I grew up with a sister that played with Barbie (and was inundated with toy commercials in the 80s), so I’m well familiar with the iconography.
Gerwig takes the time to explain how this imagination-powered dimension works, without overthinking it or becoming tedious. For example, Barbie doesn’t take the stairs, because little girls don’t walk their Barbie down the stairs — she floats down, because you just put Barbie where you want her. (One character asks, “Do giant hands reach in and play with you?”).
Robbie is believable as the doll in existential crisis, as are many of the other Barbies, even if they don’t flesh out most of the characters that well. But I always love seeing Issa Rae in anything and Kate McKinnon is quirky as Weird Barbie. I’d have to say though, at the risk of getting patriarchal, that it’s Gosling that really shines. He’s got a couple of energetic dance numbers and he’s an excellent goofy comic foil for Barbie/Robbie. Plus, those abs, man.
It’s a good story, filled with meta references, though it owes a lot to flicks like Enchanted or The Lego Movie (Will Farrell even has a similar role). There are plenty of in-jokes about Mattel and its history. Props to Mattel for allowing Gerwig such liberties to satirize them.
Allowing Gerwig to be honest in her satire has given Barbie a new lease, potentially stopping the sometimes controversial toy from falling into obsolescence. Being open and embracing where Barbie has been — and hinting at where she could go — paves the road for the future. It’s the biggest piece of a rebrand of Barbie as a diverse and empowering toy. They want you to believe it has the power to tear down the patriarchy, which is probably a lofty goal, but damn smart branding.
For a while it felt like some of these ideas were conflicting. They hammer on the patriarchy, but their society is basically the same thing, with the Kens as second-class citizens. Though, without giving anything away, they sort of work out these inconsistencies by the end. It’s also fair to say that this reflects the history of Barbie — conflicted. Barbie has caused problems like unrealistic body expectations and heavily gendered toys. One character points out that Barbie set feminism back by 50 years.
However, while it may have just been so Mattel could release endless line ups of different dolls, Barbie has also issued role models from astronauts to educators, showing girls that they can be anything they want. In the film, there are Barbies and Kens of all shapes and sizes which is making extremist right wing heads explode.
The movie is incredibly clever and a lot of fun. I can’t say that I thought it was a laugh-a-minute riot. I smiled lots and chuckled a few times. I never laughed out loud. But I got something even better from Barbie; as I sat in a theatre among people of all ages, many of them little girls dressed in pink, I realized what a great feeling it can be when everyone comes out to not just watch a movie, but to experience it together.