Barbie has come to signify many things. A friend. A foe. A token of feminism. The reinforcer of feminine ideals. For myself, she’s come to represent childhood innocence. The time I forced myself to grow up and leave behind such childish things. This fashion doll created by Ruth Handler has spent decades taking the world by storm and meaning something different for everyone. It has absorbed society’s changing attitudes and projections with ease.
But in the brand-new Barbie movie, we get to experience through the doll’s eyes what happens when the real world slips into the fantasy of Barbieland. Directed by Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay with Noah Baumbach, we’re taken on a wildly chaotic ride with dance numbers, existentialism, and the whiplash journey that is coming into one’s own.
We’re introduced to the self-proclaimed Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) via lovely narration from Helen Mirren. The day-to-day life in Barbieland is one of smiles, routine, and perfection. The Barbies wake up daily, work their respective jobs, and take time embracing the sisterhood. On the side are the Kens, with Ryan Gosling‘s stereotypical Ken front and center.
Everything seems to be going okay until one night a dread creeps into Stereotypical Barbie’s heart. Anxieties and bodily imperfections start to crop up. The explanation? The thoughts of Stereotypical Barbie’s owner are starting to matriculate in from the Real World. Determined to regain her perfection, Stereotypical Barbie takes off to the Real World. Joined by Ken, they are both soon introduced to a reality that will blow their minds.
There are numerous gags featured in this meta fantasy-comedy, particularly once the dolls hit the Real World. Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling stand out for their full embrace of physical comedy and overall delivery.
The brutal discovery of the patriarchy, sexim, and the irony of a board of men promoting Barbie as the token of feminism isn’t lost. The history of the doll and its meaning carries weight here that Gerwig and Baumbach have no problem exploring, within reason.
After spending so much time having his identity tied to Stereotypical Barbie, Ken’s overall arc post-entering the Real World is expected. With everyone in on the joke, particularly Gosling who is operating on all cylinders, it makes for some solid comedy.
Balancing out the tone of the film from preventing it into going full-blown camp (though, there is nothing wrong with that) is the storyline surrounding Gloria (America Ferrera) and Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), a mother and daughter Stereotypical Barbie is inexplicably linked to. Gloria’s loneliness prompts her to seek out Sasha’s old dolls. Unfortunately, those all-too-real feelings impact the toy a bit too much. Hence, the dilemma behind the film.
It is through Gloria’s attempts to reconnect with her daughter that both the audience and Stereotypical Barbie realize that their impact on the world is not all sunshine and rainbows as the occupants of Barbieland believe. But, through Ferrera’s performance, audiences find something to ground them in this whirlwind of chaos.
Gerwig and Baumbach explore the various nuances here that the doll has come to embody and, likely due to the influence of Mattel, work through Gloria and the final act to attempt to rehabilitate the complicated meaning Barbie has come to embody.
That’s not to say the handling of the messages is smooth sailing. There are some distractions along the way due to scene choices that, while daring, take a person out of the film before they can right themselves again. And there is the question of whether themes surrounding Barbie’s feminist symbolism and identity are left vague to appease Mattel.
But, for a film that is prime time positioned to be a summer blockbuster, I applaud Gerwig and co. for swinging for the fences. The Barbie movie is not afraid to be weird. It takes many chances whilst also paying homage to legendary filmmakers and films. For film fans, you’ll have fun (or offended depending on how sensitive you are) finding the Easter Eggs.
Speaking of Easter Eggs, dear Bob the level of Barbie history and detailing that is in Barbie is just astounding. Fans of Barbie are going to have their brains explode. From Pregnant Midge (Emerald Fennell) to Ken’s friend, Allan (Michael Cera) to the Mermaid Barbies of the 2000s, it’s an adventure trying to pick out all the various Barbies that our brains pick out from childhood memories.
This leads me into the overall below-the-line design. People have gone on about wanting “I’m Just Ken” to get a Best Song nomination but let me say that if Barbie doesn’t get nominated in production design and costume design alone, I will riot.
Set designer Sarah Greenwood and decorator Katie Spencer bring Barbieland to life with their impeccable attention to detail and stylistic approach to the overall Barbie aesthetic. From the vans that open to the see-through homes on the set to the plastic waves of the beach, there’s an element of fantasy and realism invoked in what they’ve created.
With the costumes in Barbie, Gerwig brought in previous collaborator, costume designer Jacqueline Durran. Pulling from different eras of Barbie’s history, from the ’60s to the ’80s, we see how all the Barbies and Kens vary in their clothing choices, and what it signifies of their characters. We are also reminded continuously how much of a fashion icon Barbie has been over the decades, because each outfit is stylish and awe-inspiring.
While there are always things that I could have wanted more from, the fact that the Barbie movie was made is a miracle. The project has changed many hands, with many having a different approach to how they want to tackle this toy icon.
The final product we’ve received? It’s a wild, hilarious, meta ride that will have you nostalgic for childhood in the midst of real-world issues.
BARBIE REVIEW SCORE: 8 OUT OF 10
Warner Bros. Pictures‘ Barbie is now playing in theaters. The film is rated PG-13 for suggestive references and brief language.