The entire premise of Warner Bros.’ announcement of plans to release a Barbie movie seemed a little like a Hollywood Mad Libs game gone wrong: Name a well-known independent filmmaker (Greta Gerwig), an unadapted work of art (Barbie dolls), and an adjective (neon pink) in a matter of seconds. Throughout the (lengthy) press tour, fresh details kept coming out, each one seeming crazier than the last. The musicals starring Gene Kelly and 2001: A Space Odyssey were the two sources of Gerwig’s greatest influence (Lady Bird, Little Women). Complex dancing routines were teased. Many remarks by Ryan Gosling have been attributed to “Kenergy.” What did this movie actually consist of, and could it possibly live up to the hot pink hype?
The decision? Never besmirch Gerwig. A feisty, humorous, and profoundly feminist adventure has been created by the Oscar-nominated director that dares you to laugh and cry—even if you’re made of plastic. It’s undoubtedly the first summer blockbuster that mix amusing jokes about Kens threatening to “beach” each other off with smart critiques of the salary disparity.
The movie transports audiences to Barbie Land, a candy-colored toy box fantasy with infinite sunshine (out this Friday). There, our film’s titular heroine (Margot Robbie) spends her days, each one as enchanted and vivid as the last. There are always other Barbies to hang out with, such Mermaid Barbie (Dua Lipa), Doctor Barbie (Hari Nef), and President Barbie (Issa Rae), in addition to an unending supply of dedicated Kens, led by Ryan Gosling’s usually shirtless boy-toy. For Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie, the kind of doll that springs to mind when you think of Barbie, it’s a plastic paradise.
However, something is not right. Her Malibu Dreamhouse breaks down; un-Barbie-like visions of death invade her mind; and her flawlessly arched feet now collapse to the ground. Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), the fictitious mystic of Barbie Land, claims that a breach between their world and the actual world has emerged, and our heroine must risk the long journey to Los Angeles to discover the person playing with her doll in order to close it. As a result, our heroine sets off to obtain answers from Weird Barbie. She is definitely taking Ken (Gosling), who has always been faithful, with her.
Barbie and Ken, however, are both aware that they have practically entered a mirror dimension once they start rollerblading about Los Angeles. Where are the female astronauts, CEOs, and presidents? Barbie was created with the intention of inspiring young girls to pursue their dreams, but this hasn’t happened, and she may even have had the opposite of the desired feminist impact.
Gerwig takes on the thorny history of the doll head-on, examining how Barbie’s reputation in our country is one of corporatized objectification rather than of leadership or creativity. Barbie is frightened as she encounters sexist remarks for the first time in her (plastic) existence. Ken, on the other hand, finds this newfound notion of patriarchy to be intoxicating, and he soon descends into a spiral of machismo, luxuriating in trucks, cowboy hats, and the compulsive rush of power.
For his sincere portrayal of a himbo, which has already garnered plaudits, Gosling truly steals the show. For an actor who has spent a large portion of his career acting in melancholy roles (see: Blade Runner 2049, Drive, and First Man), this is his chance to finally channel his inner Mouseketeer by either passionately laying himself at Barbie’s feet or belting out the power ballad “I’m Just Ken.” His Ken’s head is quite quiet, but his heart is filled with emotion: love and admiration for Barbie, a need for masculine approval, and wide-eyed curiosity about the world.
The true star of Barbie is still Robbie. Physically, the blonde Australian actress already appears like she came straight out of a Mattel toy box (a joke that the movie itself makes during one particular scene), but she puts on an amazingly transformational performance, moving her arms and joints as if they were made of plastic. In prior movies like Babylon and Birds of Prey, Robbie introduced a frenetic physicality, but she now fully embraces physical humor. She occasionally falls face-first to the ground, limbs twisted like a toddler dropped a toy.
Robbie’s behavior slowly changes to become more human as Barbie learns more about the outside world. About halfway through the movie, Barbie quietly sits on a park bench and discreetly scans the people around her. This is one of the most touching scenes.
The only problem with the movie is that Barbie and Ken are so entertaining that their real-life equivalents seem uninteresting in comparison. A frantic mother and her sarcastic teen daughter, played by America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt, have become apart over time. Ferrera draws alternate Barbies—ones who suffer from cellulite or are haunted by death—to pass the time at her dull work at the Mattel corporate headquarters. Her feminist daughter insults Robbie with a sneer and dismisses everything Barbie stands for. Ferrera gives one of the most moving speeches in the movie, but unexpectedly, the human characters never seem to have the same level of realism as their plastic doll friends.
Barbie makes an effort to amuse both the parents who will take their 11-year-old daughters to the theater and the girls themselves. The screenplay was co-written by Gerwig and her longtime husband and collaborator Noah Baumbach, and it is jam-packed with wry one-liners that are worth seeing again. Hollywood, it is feared, will take the wrong lesson from Barbie and rush to approve movies on any toy lying on the floor of a child’s playroom. (Will The Funko Pop Movie be the next? Fully loaded, Furby? Perhaps we’ve already arrived as there is a Bobbleheads movie.) However, Gerwig’s meticulousness and attention to detail elevate it above every other cynical, IP-driven cash grab by giving Barbie an actual point of view. It appears that living in a plastic bag can be awesome.