With a brand as recognizable as Barbie, the titular character’s debut on the big screen could have gone any number of ways. Mattel and Warner Brothers could have easily gone for a safe but paint-by-numbers approach, ensuring an easy ROI without any real cinematic merit.
Directed by Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) and written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story), Barbie is an experience that tactfully embraces and reveres its brand in a movie that will delight children and adults alike. Even a grown man(child) like myself—who has no affinity with the popular toy brand (despite owning an armada of toys and collectables)—found the movie thoroughly entertaining, funny and most important of all, meaningful, in an honest and tangible sense of the word.
Margot Robbie plays the iconic but bog-standard Barbie. The film opens on her character, larger than life, among young girls who have grown bored of their baby dolls, gravitating towards the more alluring and fashionable Barbie, in a scene that plays tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which sets the tone of the rest of the movie’s 1-hour 54-minute runtime.
Audiences get a quick info dump that effortlessly setups the universe of Barbie. It can essentially be broken down into the acknowledgement of the Real World, along with a bubble-like (blister pack?) society in which all Barbies, past and present, reside, along with their Ken doll equivalent. This is aptly called Barbieland, which, consequentially, is the in-universe by-product of Mattel Inc (think Black Mirror but more pastel).
After a short but delightful musical sequence reminiscent of any Bollywood film worth its salt, Barbie (Margot Robbie) has an existential crisis that causes her to lose her toylike plasticity, eventually forcing her to go to the real world in the hopes of turning back into her perfect, off-the-shelf-self. Of course, A Ken doll who suffers from an extreme form of co-dependency (Ryan Gosling) follows Robbie’s character to the real world, where the two discover the truth behind gender disparities.
“Without delving into spoilers, Barbie’s surprise star is, without a doubt, America Ferrera, whose character plays a vital role in realizing Barbie’s core mantra.”
Barbie features some heavy themes for a property based on a children’s toy for young girls. Fortunately, the film handles all of its more serious notes in a manner that doesn’t feel like they’re trying to make Barbie “woke” or overtly and deliberately all-encompassing.
Ken-adian stars Ryan Gosling and Simu Liu play the two most prominent Ken dolls. Like Robbie’s Barbie, the actors wholeheartedly seem to be enjoying themselves. They put on a great performance that does an excellent job of keeping the movie fun throughout.
Without delving into spoilers, Barbie’s surprise star is, without a doubt, America Ferrera, whose character plays a vital role in realizing Barbie’s core mantra. This is that anyone can be Barbie and that individualisms and feminity are core pillars of any contemporary society, even a plastic one.
“Outside of a well-paced narrative, Barbie’s colour palette beautifully brings to life everything that is Barbie…”
Outside of a well-paced narrative, Barbie’s colour palette beautifully brings to life everything that is Barbie, with set pieces and elements found within Barbieland itself feeling like scaled-up replicas of actual doll houses. There is a stark contrast between Barbieland and the Real World depicted in the film that feels similar to the dichotomy found in 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Even in some instances, feeling better realized due to the source material being actual children’s playthings come to life, which itself should come with an air of rigidity and fakeness.
The film’s script also reflects this disparity of ideas and motifs, with Barbie often breaking the 4th wall, directly addressing the film’s writers and the talented cast itself, ultimately making for an unpredictable but thoroughly enjoyable ride.
Barbie pushes Barbie forward while paying homage to the iconic legacy created by Ruth Handler’s beloved toy line in an overall package that can exist outside the toy store, being a real source of inspiration for young people everywhere.