From the first teaser for Barbie, a winking reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s “dawn of man” opening scene, Greta Gerwig’s big-screen movie of the iconic toy looked surprisingly promising. The marketing cleverly targeted viewers who loved Barbie and viewers who hated Barbie.
Barbie (Margot Robbie) lives in Barbie World, a phantasmagoria of pink perfection with open-walled Barbie Dream Houses, a beach with plastic waves, and Barbies of all types (doctor! physicist! and…. pregnant Midge!) smiling and waving at each other, while occasionally breaking out into dance parties. Barbie fans: Check. But It doesn’t take long for the film to welcome the cynics into the fold when Barbie’s perfectly (and permanently) arched feet suddenly collapse to be flat and human, and she finds herself having unfamiliar existential thoughts about death. YES. (I cackled.)
Turns out that there is essentially a rift in the time/space continuum between Barbie World and, well, the real world. Kind of like the question of whether Santa exists if there are no children to believe, Stereotypical Barbie’s perfect Barbie life can only exist if her human owner still cherishes her doll. No Barbie wants to become Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), a doll who was “played with too hard,” with pen on her face and hair chopped raggedly, and whom always seems to be doing the splits. Weird Barbie tells our heroine that she must go to the real world and find her human to repair their connection before it is too late.
A few cartoony dioramas and many fabulous outfits later, Barbie and her cute but not very bright boyfriend Ken (Ryan Gosling) are rollerblading at Venice Beach to the quizzical looks of everyday folks. Why isn’t this the perfect world of female empowerment that Barbie was told her influence created? Why do men whistle at her? Where are the women construction workers? While Barbie channels her energy to find her human owner, Ken, her literal boy toy, splits off on his own adventure and discovers, yes, PATRIARCHY.
The clever lines and quippy asides come fast and furious in Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s super-reverential and super-referential screenplay. Barbie manages to balance its love for Barbie the icon while fully acknowledging the more recent cultural backlash toward the doll. While Mattel’s logo is clearly slapped on screen in the opening credits, the company pokes fun at itself in the movie (showing their corporate headquarters as a sort of Brazil-like hive of cubicles with a candy colored corporate suite ruled by Will Ferrrell, channeling a softer version of his Lego Movie Lord Business). But it ain’t no joke when, in the movie, you see Mattel actually packaging new toy tie ins for patriarchy-loving Ken. (I’m sure you’ll be able to find these at a Walmart near you!)
Grounding the story in the real world are Barbie’s humans, Gloria (America Ferrera) and her jaded tween daughter Sasha, played by Ariana Greenblatt. Though Gloria still embraces her love of the toy, it’s the modern kids like Sasha who reject what she represents. Barbie is baffled by the fact that her candy coated brand of feminism doesn’t seem to resonate like it used to, despite the existence of such role models as President Barbie (Issa Rae), Physicist Barbie (Emma Mackey), and an all-Barbie Supreme Court. There are actually some thoughtful learning moments acknowledging this conundrum, as characters grapple with self-worth, unrealistic body image, and the sheer exhaustion of normal women not seeing themselves represented or appreciated (does that mean there going to be a Normal Barbie?). But it is also about sisterhood. Barbie sisterhood.
And Ken? Ken just thinks horses are manly and cool. And that’s OK.
Led by Robbie’s sweet earnestness, Barbie is infectious, with just enough slyness that is isn’t so sticky sweet that your teeth shatter. Everyone is having loads of fun, and I can see this quickly becoming a camp classic. The cynic in me thinks, “Oh, god, another corporate marketing movie about a toy?” But the viewer in me was like, “I love it!” For those quick to dismiss the movie as a two-hour commercial for Mattel, well, you aren’t wrong. But with its clever screenplay that somehow manages to address gender roles, politics, the patriarchy, and women’s worth in modern society, it also manages to be a confection-colored take on modern America that really isn’t so far off base. Barbie is going to make you laugh AND think. Whether Mattel got the movie they signed up for, Greta Gerwig absolutely delivered the movie they deserved.