It’s taken over 60 years, but Barbara Millicent Roberts is finally the star of a major live-action movie. Barbie could have been merely the latest marketing coup in terms of a movie studio hatching a deal with a major corporation to fully cash in on a wildly popular item that speaks to young children as well as nostalgic joy from adults. However, not unlike The LEGO Movie, it’s pretty clear Warner Bros. lived up to their reputation of being a filmmaker-friendly studio this time around and allowed their control of the rights to be an excuse to let director/writer Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, Little Women) and co-writer Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story) run wild with the opportunity to deliver something unique. The result is a colorful, energy-filled exploration of a fashion doll having an existential crisis. It’s as weird as it sounds, which works well in favor of a movie happy to lean into absurdist comedy, wacky set pieces, and strong themes involving maturation and womanhood. And it’s all dipped in pink.
Margot Robbie stars as Barbie. She lives in Barbieland, a matriarchal society where everything at least has the appearance of perfection. When Barbie wakes up in her dream house, the other Barbies greet her with a “good morning” from their dream homes. As she drives down the street, more salutations arrive, including a sky salute from pilot Barbie and waves above the stratosphere from astronaut Barbies (“Yay Space!”).
The design aesthetic is pretty brilliant. With a sneaky use of special effects, there’s a handcrafted quality to not only the buildings and other structures in the foreground but the settings surrounding these characters and filling out the world. We see what appears to be cardboard-constructed landscapes, animals on wires, and other ideas to suggest a child’s imagination coming to life. Generally, this approach in a fish-out-of-water story is merely used for the first act before returning to some sort of reality (think Elf). In Barbie, far more time is spent in this fantasy world than expected, and it’s fortunate to do so.
Just as Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, had always intended, the whole philosophy of Barbie was that through that doll, a child could be anything they wanted and always have choices. That idea is very much on display in Barbieland, as the variety of Barbies includes doctor, president, writer, physicist, lawyer, diplomat, and journalist, all of whom are played by a variety of performers, including Alexandra Shipp, Issa Rae, Emma Mackey, Sharon Rooney, Hari Nef, Ana Cruze Kayne, and Ritu Arya. So, what is it that sets the story in motion?
Without divulging too much of what takes place, Barbie suddenly finds herself concerned with her own mortality, and the perfect days she experiences change dramatically. Thanks to information given to her by Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon as a Barbie who was played with too much), the choice is made for Barbie to head to the real world and hopefully correct what she believes is wrong.
Part of what I enjoy about this film is how it tells this story. Gerwig and Baumbach have no real desire to delve into the mechanics of how this fantasy world works any further than they need to. As much as this is a film with ideas on its mind concerning Barbie’s self-actualization, it’s not going to get there any faster or in a way more interesting by focusing on human characters pointing out how weird it is that all of this is happening. Instead, it leans in further, complete with ways to remark on its own existence. Will Ferrell pops in as the CEO of Mattel, and his antics are even more cartoony than those living in Barbieland, as he and his business lackeys literally trip over themselves trying to explain they support women by making all their choices for them.
Los Angeles (specifically Century City and Venice Beach) is the real-world location Barbie gets to witness, and while there’s a bit of an adjustment, the script refrains from ever presenting the character as dumb or less than capable. There’s a naivety to observe, and it works to the advantage of Robbie, who plays several layers thanks to the script having smarter ways to approach the familiar movie idea of someone discovering what it’s like to be among people for the first time in some way. The results lead to comedy as well as deeply felt moments as Barbie grows to understand that not everyone likes the famed doll, let alone what it means to learn what the power dynamic is actually like in reality.
Now, as interesting as I found all of this, there’s also the film’s X-factor – Ryan Gosling as Ken (just Ken). Played as a blond pretty boy with no real purpose beyond wanting to have Barbie’s attention and be able to help when he can, Gosling hits so many fun notes here. His particular Ken has the profession of “beach” (not a lifeguard), and there’s a lot of comedic gold in how he speaks, emotes, and attempts to upstage the other Kens, particularly Simu Liu as the competitive Ken #2. Gosling’s Ken does team up with Barbie on the journey to LA, and he gets a significant arc of his own. It’s outlandish and totally fitting as a way to upset the balance of Barbieland. The results are fairly obvious, but it’s not as though Barbie needs to be subtle in what it’s getting at. Also, it’s never not fun seeing just how ridiculous the Ken side of things gets, with enough song breaks to make you wish this movie was more of a dance-filled musical.
Ken does add an interesting balance to the plot as far as finding ways to be a film bound to please all audiences. Still, I had hoped I would see a movie that knew how to subvert being an elaborate display of a popular product, and Barbie does manage to pull that off. It’s still a bit rough around the edges when it comes to being a tight comedy (this film runs almost two hours) and knowing how big to play the sentimental touches at the cost of which laughs. With that said, the ambition is certainly on display.
Additionally, while no part of me ever thinks of being too closed off to want to try and understand or relate, I can still reasonably say that certain audiences will obviously gain more from what Barbie has to offer than I do. This is never evidenced more clearly than with a key monologue concerning what it takes to be a modern woman from America Ferrera as a Mattel employee trying to help Barbie. It will surely elicit plenty of applause from various audiences, which again speaks to a clever screenplay with clear goals.
If one thing has been made clear in 2023, it’s that there’s a desire out there in audiences to see quality films rooted in inspiring stories of how commercial enterprises managed to win out, along with cinematic adaptations of highly familiar brands that have never received the major motion picture treatment until now. With that in mind, while dealing with Air Jordans or Super Mario provided straightforward representations of their product (to greater and lesser effect), Barbie stands out by clearly working to disrupt the order of things by simply showing how one’s abilities and drive to be anything can also just mean being human. This film takes plenty of stances in how it chooses to comment on society from its particular perspective, but it’s far from holding back its main desire to please the audience with the joy that stems from bringing the Mattel toy to life. Full of spirit, costumes, and other cinematic accessories, Barbie, for all her complications, shows there’s always a reason to trust your true self and occasionally have fun while doing it.