Anthropologists believe there may be tribes living in the farthest reaches of the Amazon basin who have yet to catch sight of the marketing campaign for the new Barbie film, but for the rest of us the damn thing has been melting our eyeballs for weeks. So it’s an unexpected pleasure to report that Greta Gerwig’s film – while still fundamentally being a summer comedy adventure about the Barbie toy line – is far from the blunt-force cash grab many of us feared. In fact it’s deeply bizarre, conceptually slippery and often roar-out-loud hilarious.
Barbie’s core young fanbase will enjoy the silliness, the dance numbers, and above all the bright colours – after two hours I left the cinema barely able to see. But the film has been written with older viewers in mind, and its pleasures are often planted between inverted commas. Much of the time you’re just enjoying the meta-spectacle of Gerwig, whose last film was the masterful 2019 adaptation of Little Women, springing herself and her stars from what initially looks like an inescapable corporate trap.
It opens with an arch narration from Helen Mirren, in which the official Mattel line (you can imagine it being dictated to Gerwig and her co-writer and partner Noah Baumbach in a board room) is hammered home to a self-evidently absurd degree. The mere existence of this stylish, aspirational toy, we’re told, has solved every problem women face: thanks to Barbie, little girls in the real world now know they can do and be anything, while Barbie Land itself is a fragrant, female-centred Eden, where each day unfolds in a rictus of bliss.
Daily activities here feel like they’re being dictated from behind the camera by a six-year-old: which is to say in a Barbie context, they’re strikingly realistic. Ken (Ryan Gosling), whose job is “beach”, bounces off a wave while surfing and is whisked to a fold-out hospital. But that evening, halfway through a Dua Lipa dance number, Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) asks her fellow Barbies “Do you guys ever think about dying?” – and it becomes clear that in the outside, human world, from where the Barbies and Kens are (somehow) controlled, things are going dangerously amiss.
Rather than thrashing out the metaphysics, the script simply packs Robbie and Gosling off to Los Angeles, where Robbie’s Barbie finds her downcast owners, Ariana Greenblatt’s Sasha and her mother Gloria (America Ferrera). Meanwhile, Gosling’s Ken, drunk on the delights of a society built to service the needs and desires of men, decides to import some patriarchy back to Barbie Land, causing the whole place promptly to go to seed.
This satirical angle – likelier to strike a chord with older viewers than pre-teens – is enthusiastically and mischievously milked. (There are gags here that gleefully poke a number of masculine online beehives.) Ken’s vision of a perfect, male-centric society is rapturously inane – think Casio keyboards, Mortal Kombat arcade machines, and large plastic drums of dietary supplements with names like “Girth Juice” – and Gosling comes close to stealing the entire film with his hilariously hungry embrace of his newfound alpha status.
The film makes a sneaky virtue of its artistic fudges: when the near-inhumanly gorgeous Robbie monologues about being afraid to sometimes not look her best, in chimes Mirren with an aside to the filmmakers, reminding them the Wolf of Wall Street star was probably not the best person to cast if they wanted to make this point convincingly. The compromise acknowledged, you find yourself laughing along again: it’s a film that manages to have its strawberry blancmange and scoff it, spoon after wibbling spoon.
12A cert, 114 min. In cinemas from Friday July 21