Bonkers & beautiful.
Barbie is bonkers, beautiful, bursting with all the cinema joy in co-writer & director Greta Gerwig’s Letterboxd watchlist, and buoyed by a Gosling as Ken in a whole zone of his own. Margot Robbie is so perfect as Barbie, that the film (in the literal voice of Helen Mirren) calls her and itself out for it.
One day in Barbieland, populated by myriad Barbies and Kens, Stereotypical Barbie (Robbie) begins having an existential crisis. To solve it, she must journey into the Real World to visit her manufacturer, Mattel, where she encounters the CEO (Will Ferrell) and employee Gloria (America Ferrera, who has the unenviable task of preaching the film’s most disappointingly literal sermon). The two twists in Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach‘s version of this Splash-style story: the “real” world (or at least, the Mattel part of it) is as madcap as Barbieland; and Ken (Ryan Gosling), who lives for the attention of Margot Robbie’s Barbie, is plunged into an existential crisis of his own – which just about steals the show.
The kaleidoscope of comedy, commentary, costumes, physical sets, poignant moments, zany shenanigans, and dance numbers which follows is delightfully unhinged. The genius idea to set Barbieland in the era in which Barbie was invented extends to the style and substance of the entire film: from physical sets and painted backdrops, to the timelessness and timeliness of the screwball comedies of Golden Age Hollywood.
Barbie is as much about nostalgia as it is about this very moment.
We love Ken because, despite his efforts to introduce patriarchy (or his infantile understanding of it) to Barbieland, crucially he is not a man-child, just a child. He’s a five-year-old, who gets bored easily, won’t stray too far from his mama, and loses genuine interest in patriarchy once he learns horses aren’t really a part of it. Ken represents the hope, the potential, for boys yet unspoiled by patriarchy; Gloria’s intervention effectively slaps patriarchy out of his hand before he can hurt himself and others with it. Not to take away from queer Twitter’s readings of Barbie’s lack of romantic interest in Ken, but the attention Ken craves from Barbie is ultimately revealed to be not romantic interest, but maternal approval.
My only criticism of Barbie is that there are too many talented actors and not enough time for most of them to show off even a little of what they can really do. The underuse of Issa Rae and Ncuti Gatwa in particular is criminal – just one of them could power the sun that shines on Barbieland. (Oh and Will Ferrell takes me out of anything he’s in – while the rest of the cast plays their parts, he’s only ever Will Ferrell, and the only part of Barbie that left me wondering what it was supposed to contribute to the otherwise glorious and delirious whole.)
Which is not to say silliness isn’t important – it absolutely is, and Barbie celebrates that among so many other important things. Barbie will be the first time many of its younger viewers hear a particular word – the final word in the movie – which will prompt young daughters to ask questions of their parents after the movie, and which, given the time we’re in (particularly in America), may be the boldest political statement of the entire film.
Barbie isn’t only great because it’s fun, but because it says a lot of things that are true: some metaphorically, some literally, most goofily, all earnestly. It’s rich with cinematic pedigree, and one need know exactly nothing of any of that to just enjoy it. I envy the kids who will grow up with this having been a formative film in their lives.
Among Gerwig’s several “authentically artificial” references, which combine physical sound stages and painted backdrops, is the “dream-ballet-inside-of-a-dream-ballet” in Singin’ in the Rain (1952):
“The fact that it is a doll made by a corporation, and that it’s a doll with this complex history, if we deny that then what are we doing?” Gerwig on how she convinced Mattel to let her make not just “a” Barbie movie, but this Barbie movie (via Kermode & Mayo’s Take – audio only):
Before it even dropped, Barbie gave us possibly one of the all-time greatest trailers…
… which, of course, prompted helpful, audience-made, side-by-side-with-Kubrick’s-original edits:
“The Barbie Movie making the case for physical sets and costumes” is not something i imagined writing with sincere excitement in 2023. “How do the pinks interact” indeed (via Architectural Digest):
I mean come on:
Margot Robbie (who is also the film’s producer) and Greta Grewig on the business of talking business into agreeing to a movie like this (via ABC Australia):
Gia Kourlas (who somehow also says “It’s bonkers, and it’s beautiful”, so… I guess we both independently arrived at that particular choice of words? Cool) writes that “The Dance Delight in ‘Barbie’ Belongs to the Kens” in this lovely piece in The New York Times):
The Real World
The Original Barbie Movie
Some media coverage of Barbie has referenced a previous, unlicensed Barbie movie: Superstar – The Karen Carpenter Story (1988). Directed by Todd Haynes (who went on to direct 2015’s Carol), the film uses Barbie dolls to tell the story of tragic popular musician Karen Carpenter, of The Carpenters. Since Mattel never authorised the use of the dolls, the full movie can only be viewed via fan uploads like this: