Barbie is colorful, often hilarious, sweet, and yet appropriately sour as well. The story of a “plastic toy out of their box” may remind viewers of Lord and Miller’s The Lego Movie, but writer/director Greta Gerwig (Little Women) is too smart for that. Opening the box might degrade its mint condition, but that’s entirely the point. What if the happy-go-lucky iconic doll had an existential crisis? Would a trip to the real world of LA enforce or dampen her beach-tanned sunny optimism?
As played to perfection by Margot Robbie, Barbie’s journey from the matriarchal Barbieland to the patriarchal and cynical Venice Beach (and later Century City) via the script by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach is full of jokes that land. Still, as the plot develops, so do the very relevant observations on toxic behavior (male and female), gaslighting, and really, that’s just the jumping-off point. Just how much is packed in the script is a miracle.
I won’t spoil the plot beyond the broad strokes, but there are a lot of clever ways, both visually and as written, in which Barbie and Ken (Ryan Gosling) start changing, and sometimes not for the better. The story’s hook is Barbie’s inherent belief that, as a doll, it’s her purpose to inspire the girls and women of the real world. As a result, the real world should be run by intelligent, capable women. (Although she is a doll, Barbie would never imagine herself as an object.) Yet in the real world, discussions of the actual effects a “stereotypical” Barbie has had on girls, specifically a teen named Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), is devastating for Barbie. Sasha’s mom Gloria (America Ferrera), who works at Mattel (where men fill all the leadership roles), has new ideas for the doll. These are concepts that Mattel CEO (Will Ferrell) cannot fathom. And like Ken, has an overly sensitive ego because men, amirite?
As the trailers have highlighted, there are countless Barbies and Kens. From Issa Rae’s President Barbie to Simu Liu’s “Another Ken,” the cast plays the right amount of deadpan for a film based on Mattel’s most famous doll. Then there’s Alan (Michael Cera), who is not a Ken and has been forgotten in real life but is unforgettable onscreen. Kate McKinnon has a sly role as a damaged Barbie.
The production design by Sarah Greenwood (Beauty & the Beast) and the cinematography by Rodrigo Pieto (one of Taylor Swift’s go-to people for her music videos) is always inviting with warm pastels. The look and feel echos the 90s queer classic But I’m A Cheerleader! or Swift’s You Need To Calm Down. Gerwig wisely keeps the visuals (even in Los Angeles) as comfy as a kid playing with their toys. Like the best school play with the nicest players ever.
Even as the tale butts up against the impossible expectations put on women in 2023 through a fantastic monologue delivered by Ferrera, Gerwig’s sense of wonder and empowerment prevails. One of the best choices in a script full of many is Barbie’s onset of depression and anxiety. Robbie is really great here. She allows us to root for her, even when we just want her Barbie to seek help, stat. She is not the unwavering naive Emmett from The Lego Movie or Will Ferrell’s Buddy in Jon Favreau’s Elf. Because honestly, that would not speak to our culture at large. Once you take the Barbie out of the box, the consequences are inspired and never shallow.
On the flip side, Ken (Gosling) gets drunk on the power he discovers in patriarchy. How such a gender war gets settled in the last act (literally and figuratively) Gerwig 100% nails. This is a summer blockbuster, after all, and whatever form of action this film goes for really works within the confines of its PG-13 rating. With that said, the reality of toxic men could easily get dark all too quickly, but Gosling perfectly balances his version of Ken with ignorance and petulance. And yet, he’s not wholly unredeemable.
Greta Gerwig has delivered one of the bright spots of not just the summer but the year. The humorous take on the politics of today both tickles and stings. It took over sixty years for Barbie to reach the silver screen, but the wait was well worth it. Barbie is a triumph of not just style and perfect casting but of seemingly endless subjects to be discussed and unpacked.