Throughout director and co-writer Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, I was constantly being struck by and wrestling with the enormity of the task in front of the filmmaker. How does one develop a feature length, fictional, live action film based around the heightened world of a beloved brand of childhood toy that seems almost impossible to adapt outside of the animated realm? How does one seek to lampoon corporate greed, flawed senses of feminist inclusivity, and hurtful patriarchal constructs run amok while simultaneously trying to deliver a silly, fun movie that could also serve as equal parts nostalgic rush for older viewers and something that can keep youngsters entertained? To compound that task, what if the filmmaker had to make the movie under the constant oversight of not one, but two corporate overlords – one that owns the brand and the other that cares deeply about the bottom line and little else?
At every turn, Barbie had my head swimming while trying to parse these varied contradictions, and I say that as the highest form of compliment. It’s a film pleasingly resistant to single viewing hot takes. Several years ago, there wouldn’t be many people who would’ve believed that a film based around a toy that could be seen either as a proponent or destroyer of feminism (depending on the lens one views it through) could be called upon to provoke a great deal of thought, while still maintaining a fun, energetic spirit throughout. At one point in Gerwig’s Barbie, the titular character, played by a perfectly cast Margot Robbie, bemoans her lot in life by saying “you’re either brainwashed, or you’re weird and ugly,” and that statement gets to the heart of the film’s myriad of existential crises, both within and without. Barbie is actually a bit of a mess, packed with subplots and an abundance of characters that aren’t necessary in the slightest for the movie to succeed. And yet, it’s a film with killer ideas and notions at every turn, so it’s a breeze to try and keep up with all the mayhem. Whenever it works, which is most of the time, Barbie is near perfection in every respect.
Barbie lives, naturally, in Barbieland, a colourful, predominantly pink fantasy world run by strong, powerful women, almost all of them also named Barbie. In their world, feminist equality is a perfectly realized ideal without a single problem to speak of and no one ever entertains a bad or negative thought. The men in this world are (again, mostly) nothing but good looking dudes named Ken, who exist solely to have their doofus exploits noticed by Barbie. They party and play constantly, but look beneath the frivolous surface and cracks within this paradise are evident. Barbies are prone to low-key putting each other down and subconsciously ostracizing those who don’t live up to their heavily made up standards. The Kens are useless, bitter creatures that lack the sort of chummy unity exhibited by the Barbies. They all walk through life thinking nothing is or could ever go wrong.
That all changes when Robbie’s “Stereotypical Barbie” starts entertaining darker thoughts about death, mortality, and the meaning of life. Barbie’s reality starts to change, even though life in Barbieland moves on the same as it always does. Barbie learns that the issue isn’t with her, but rather with the person playing with her doll avatar in “the real world.” Barbie, with an overly eager Ken (Ryan Gosling) in tow, is tasked with the dangerous mission of going to the other side and convincing her “owner” that everything is going to be a-okay, which for anyone currently living in our world knows will be easier said than done.
It boasts the set-up for a classic fish-out-of-water fantasy, but Barbie never takes the easy path to feel good laughs or cutting barbs. Gerwig and partner/co-writer Noah Baumbach have turned in a script that’s smartly realized, literary and cinematically minded, and unafraid of coming across as patently weird and surreal, but Barbie is also careful to make sure that the viewer is included as an intellectual and emotional equal. Although Gerwig (Little Women, Lady Bird) cycles through various comedic tones with remarkable dexterity, the film never comes across as scattered in its messaging or “too cool for school” in its overall tone. This spirit of genuine inclusivity – not the sort the Barbies and Kens pay lip service to – helps to strengthen the material as it moves along, especially when Gerwig pivots towards tackling more pointed and timely issues down the stretch.
But as mentioned previously, Barbie has a lot of masters to answer to, in spite of Gerwig’s talents as an uncompromising artist, the film sometimes has to go out of its way to address everything that might be on the viewer’s mind. It’s easy to go along with the bizarre, contradictory, highly specific, almost Gremlins-esque rules surrounding Barbie and her existence, but flat out telling the viewer not to question the dynamic too much all but ensures that they’re going to be unable to look beyond such things. There are so many side characters in this film played by members of an all star cast that Gerwig sometimes has to stretch in order to make sure everyone has something of substance to do, which only pads things out. The film’s core human connection, revolving around a brooding teen (Ariana Greenblatt) and her mother (America Ferrera), isn’t as interesting or well thought out as watching Barbie or Ken struggling to make sense of this new, flawed world, and a subplot involving parent company Mattel’s CEO (Will Ferrell) trying to get Barbie back under control is a limp use of time and effort for some of the simplest jokes in the script. And yet, one can totally see why these elements are included in the story. It’s just a shame they couldn’t have gotten the same amount of care and attention to detail that’s present in the rest of the film.
But Barbie works most of the time, and Gerwig does things so well that the best elements are some of the most memorable moments on screen this year. Although it might be overkill for some, Barbie is careful enough to eloquently and rationally address any and all concerns tied to its very existence as a piece of pop art entertainment. There’s no shyness or wavering because Gerwig is content to tackle anything the audience can throw at her head on, and there’s really no better metaphor for the idealized version of Barbie than standing tall and staying strong. Barbie makes its points cogently and with a lot of smarts, silly fun, and enthusiasm that’s equivalent to a sugar rush. It’s like reading a book on the ravages of late stage capitalism on class equality made out of Starburst candies while a pop song soundtrack plays in the background. The fact that it’s able to keep up with both of those settings simultaneously is undeniable proof of Gerwig’s chops as a filmmaker.
Visually, Barbie is a wonderland of delight, even when the characters are plopped down into the drab world of “reality.” The lavishness of the entrancing costuming and intricacies of sets made to look like three dimensional play-spaces feels like part of the overall joke, and one can almost hearing Gerwig cackling with tremendous glee behind the camera that she’s able to open up the world’s largest toybox to make even the most throwaway of visual gags memorable. It looks plastic in the best way whenever in Barbieland and as drably threatening as possible in the real world, nicely showcasing the banality of the lomnipresent evil many women face on a daily basis. Master cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto – a frequent collaborator with the likes of Scorsese and Iñárritu – has created a wholly original colour palette that’s captured in the most eye popping fashion possible. It’s also a film that’s highly indebted to the wide array of cinematic forbears that inspired it, most notably and obviously the works of French master Jacques Demy. Gerwig gives so much noticeable visual credit where due that Barbie also becomes an unlikely love letter to cinema in general.
Robbie and Gosling prove to be a perfect leading tandem, deftly making the decision to portray this couple that have traditionally believed to be lovers as two people who have no romantic chemistry whatsoever. Although she’s portraying a character meant to be the picture of perfection, Robbie’s performance a Barbie is uniquely reigned in as to never be goofier or sillier than it has to be. Once Barbie starts experiencing hurt, conflicted feelings, and notions that everything she previously knew was a lie, Robbie knows that she has to create an emotional connection with the viewer that a metaphorical piece of plastic never could. (Although Gerwig does a nice job of also discussing how we, as children and adults, can graft our feelings and emotions onto inanimate objects that hold a great deal of meaning to us.) Gosling gets the showier and more comedic role as a Ken whose mind is blown at the prospect of living in a world run and dominated by men instead of women. Gosling has always been an underrated comedic talent, and his turn as Ken is a crowning achievement, balancing the character’s outright idiocy and misplaced desire to please everyone around them with an undercurrent of doofish menace bubbling under the surface. They both help to make an already great movie even better via their all-in participation, but special shout outs are in order for fellow cast members Kate McKinnon (as a wise, distressingly limber Barbie that has been run nearly into the ground from too much rough play), Michael Cera (as a sensitive male doll, the only Alan in a world of Kens), and Simu Liu (as Ken, Ken’s biggest male competitor). Everyone comes, quite literally, to play.
There’s so much more to Barbie worth talking about that I fear I’ve only scratched the surface, and I relish the chance to rewatch it as soon as possible. It’s not a perfect film, and it’s all a bit much, but the effort put in by everyone involved is nothing short of astonishing. It has some of the year’s best eye candy, biggest laughs (including not one, but two pop song singalongs for the ages), and brightest ideas. But most importantly, like a beloved childhood toy, it sticks with you long after you’ve parted ways. What could’ve been just another piece of disposable entertainment has somehow become the most fascinating and sure to be talked about films of the year.
Barbie opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, July 21, 2023.
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