Some will describe Barbie as a feminist movie, which it is. However, Greta Gerwig’s film is even more about identity and the human condition. When Ruth Handler created Barbie in the 50s, she likely didn’t foresee it leading to a feature film. Even if she did, it’s safe to assume that Handler didn’t envision one grounded in an existential crisis. As sophisticated as the writing is, the film captures a childlike wonder that’ll resonate with everyone, whether or not they played with Barbie growing up. I didn’t, but I was always envious of my sister’s Barbie dreamhouse, which unfortunately went the way of the garage sale.
Margot Robbie is a Barbie girl in the Barbie world. Everything about that last sentence is literal, although technically, it’s called Barbieland here. Gerwig’s production crew has crafted a marvel of plastic and pink, crossing a Toys “R” Us Barbie aisle with Disneyland. Its population ranges from President Barbie (Issa Rae), to Writer Barbie (Alexandra Shipp), to Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon). Yet, there’s only one Stereotypical Barbie, a role that Robbie gleefully wears like a high heel. One day, however, Barbie finds that this shoe no longer fits her flat feet. Barbie must venture into the real world to find out why she’s malfunctioning.
You can have Barbie without Ken, but you can’t have Ken without Barbie. Of course, Ryan Gosling makes a strong case for a Ken spinoff movie. Gosling does the unthinkable, outshining Michael Keaton’s Ken in Toy Story 3. Tagging along for the ride, Ken joins Barbie on her voyage to reality where Mattel is run by Will Ferrell. This fish-out-of-water premise calls to mind Ferrell’s Elf, not to mention Enchanted. While the setup is familiar, the screenplay by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach is a revelation of originality. Earning that PG-13 rating, the film explores subjects that you never thought Mattel would sign off on. Even at its most mature, though, the jokes, themes, and commentary strangely suit the Barbie brand.
The witty dialogue is reminiscent of cult comedies like Clueless. On an adaptation level, though, Barbie is the boldest take on a “children’s” property since Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. People may go in expecting one thing, but they’ll walk away with something far more profound. Behind the meta humor and visual flair, it’s a deep analysis of what Barbie has represented throughout the ages. It doesn’t stop there. The film opens with a homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like that classic, Barbie is about evolution, examining how the character fits into today’s world and where she can go from here.
Barbie exists in an idyllic dream world removed from anything resembling reality. At the same time, Barbie reflects every woman’s aspirations, whether they want to be a judge, lawyer, or mermaid. In this film, Barbie also provides a platform for every woman to share in their mutual frustration. America Ferrera delivers a powerhouse monologue about the impossible system that’s been designed to hold women back. Yet, the film cleverly doesn’t turn its male characters into straight-up villains. Every character is empathetic, showing that we’re all human (even the plastic ones without reproductive organs). And yes, Barbie touches upon this, resulting in some of the year’s biggest laughs to go with the unexpected tears. A somewhat chaotic second act aside, Barbie epitomizes everything right about cinema, unapologetically taking creative risks that pay off in wonderful ways.