As a child of the 1980s, I am more than accustomed to seeing and experiencing beloved childhood properties being stripped of everything that made them great, all for the sake of the almighty dollar. That process hasn’t slowed down much here in the 2020s, and will likely continue for generations to come, but Greta Gerwig’s highly anticipated toy-daptation Barbie has set a lofty new benchmark for how insightful, dynamic and powerful storytelling can be for a film based on plastic and fabric. Though I was never a Barbie-head in my youth, Margot Robbie & Co. made me want to jump on that pink and polished bandwagon with all the obsessive energy I’d given the Ninja Turtles and Batman characters.
Release Date: July 21, 2023
Directed By: Greta Gerwig
Written By: Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach
Starring: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Kate McKinnon, America Ferrera, Will Ferrell, Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ncuit Gatwa, and Michael Cera
Rating: PG-13 for suggestive references and brief language
Runtime: 114 minutes
Indie film darling Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the stellar script with her filmmaking partner Noah Baumbach, faced a wildly daunting task in figuring out how to spin a meaningful story out of a toy whose power came from the stories that generations of children made up for them. Barbie may still be inspirational inside the box just by wearing a doctor’s coat or an astronaut suit, but it’s only when she’s out and being played with that her true power comes alive through emotional projection. Somehow, the film manages to serve as an empowering inspiration to both viewers and to its struggling main character, all without After School Special vibes.
As Stereotypical Barbie, Margot Robbie could have carried this film as a solo project, offering up all the magnetic spunk of Clueless’ Cher within the initially anti-Mean Girls bliss of Barbieland, where she’s surrounded by other gleefully jubilant versions played by a host of talents such as Alexandra Shipp, Hari Nef, Dua Lipa, Nicola Coughlan and more. Everyone’s daily routines are the same, and nobody has problems with it, because the concept of problems is foreign here, at least to the namesakes.
That opinion isn’t necessarily shared in full by the population of attention-craving Kens that live…somewhere in the area. (One of the film’s continuous treats is Barbie’s lack of awareness about even the simplest details concerning the group of Kens.) Ryan Gosling is at his best here as the most fashionable toxic man-child possible, and he’s surrounded by a pack of slightly less problematic Kens, as portrayed by totally game actors such as Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ncuti Gatwa and Scott Evans. Once Robbie and Gosling’s leads find their way inside the real world, perspectives shift, which starts to crack the foundation of the utopia that Barbie calls home.
Anything other toy movies can do, Barbie can do better
With the Toy Story and LEGO Movie franchises serving as two of the most beloved and acclaimed stories revolving around the active daily lives of playthings, Barbie seemed like it would be capable of matching up with those films’ comedic and visual flairs, with the emotional hook being a big question mark. But it thankfully doesn’t take long for Gerwig and Baumbach’s script to make it clear that there’s much more to this story than just gags about the lack of running water within the various Dream Houses.
Due to her connection to the real world, which is better saved for the movie to explain, Robbie’s Barbie starts to become more self-aware of her non-human-nature, as well as more cognizant of how unrealistic Barbieland is by way of real-world comparisons. And it’s here where Barbie can bring a mature approach to topics and emotions that Pixar and LEGO aren’t able to. Because she’s not “just a toy” like Buzz and Woody, and she’s not in the middle of a bombastic save-the-world narrative as it goes in other such projects. She’s one of us, and despite having lived an all-too-perfect life up until this point, still gains audience empathy, because being human is hard, dammit.
One of the most memorable and wonderful moments in Barbie revolves around a speech of sorts that America Ferrera’s character gives, which speaks directly to life as a woman in modern society, and it’s arguably even more cheer-worthy than anything else in the film. And with all due respect to every other toy-related movie in existence, nothing else could possibly even start to approach being so relevant.
Mattel lets Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie take Barbie on an authentic coming-of-age journey.
To be sure, a hyper-dark and unsettling version of Barbie probably exists somewhere in Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s brilliant brains, meant for a world without studio and toy company oversight. But all things considered, the movie goes to some places that viewers might not expect from a global company such as Mattel. In tackling concepts such as growing up, mother-daughter relationships and death, Barbie is like a refined version of Drop Dead Fred (or something in that wheelhouse, snotface).
Granted, it’s PG-13, so there are the expected smatterings of sexually tinged humor and lightly titillating topics, but it’s the emotional beats that feel more deeply adult than the hyper-bright aesthetics might indicate. I can think of several moments that almost definitely raised eyebrows on the studio side, but nothing that felt out of place within this broad universe.
And outside of general theming, Mattel also allowed itself to serve as one of the antagonistic forces in the film, as based around Will Ferrell’s CEO and his men-only board of directors. I have to imagine some elements were whittled down or removed, but Gerwig plays up the idea that while Barbie can be an amazing inspiration, it and Mattel can also be conceived as having been a blight on the road to feminism, despite molding itself to become more diverse over time. For all that Disney lets Bart Simpson crack jokes about Mickey Mouse, I cannot imagine that corporation taking the kind of self-dinging approach that Mattel has.
Barbie’s relatively simple plotting is balanced by layers of emotion, heart, and Ken-bashing hilarity.
Anyone looking for a dense and plotty movie that’s like Oppenheimer meets Ocean’s Eleven by way of Citizen Kane, well, you’re kind of shit out of luck. Because one such fair criticism of Barbie is that its high concept core — “What if doll, but also human?” as read by an in-character Ryan Gosling — doesn’t itself feel like it’s aiming higher than those of similar projects. The main conflict of the movie revolves around a newly invigorated (read as: anti-woke) Ken attempting to turn Barbieland into a patriarchal community, complete with all the beach volleyball, beer-brewskis and Matchbox 20 songs that one can stand.
Despite the relatively simplistic logline, however, Barbie imbues every element of the movie with additional layers of imagination, heart, and real-world toy logic. So many details strewn throughout the movie pay respect to how children play with dolls, with Kate McKinnon’s Weird Barbie serving as the A+ combination of those ideas, and that kind of authentic fan-based attention goes a long way even without complicated schemes, heists and backstabbing involved.
Plus, Barbie could have spent its entire runtime just exploring all the side characters and still would have felt like a winner. From Issa Rae’s President Barbie showing up at all the events (“You’re welcome,”) to the purposefully non-violent and only barely antagonistic feud between Gosling’s Ken and Simu Liu’s Ken to Michael Cera as the lone version of the toy Allan, Barbie does not lack for details and nuance at any second.
It’s got musical numbers, it’s got wild fashion choices, it’s got dozens of Kens wearing short-shorts and headbands. Barbie is a generation-defining film to be loved and enjoyed by everyone from those who grew up during the doll line’s earliest days to the tweens who are tackling many of the issues with identity and physicality that the movie represents. Or even by someone like me, a 40-year-old guy who maybe spent six total minutes in life actually holding a Barbie. Thanks for making me a fan.