"Barbie" stars Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Rhea Perlman, and Will Ferrell. Released on July 21, 2023, the film has a woman from a fantasy utopia journeying to the real world.
The film is directed by Greta Gerwig, who also directed "Nights and Weekends", "Lady Bird", and "Little Women". It is based on the fashion doll line by Mattel. Many dolls exist to comfort children and inspire their imaginations to their undeniable fullest. However, none of them can compare to the phenomenon that is Barbie. Since its launch sixty-four years ago, Barbie has dominated the fashion doll business through her female independence and countless fashion designs. She even inspired many girls to be whoever they wanted to be. Even though she's not without her share of controversies, Barbie remains an iconic brand that paved the way for women's equality…and shopping urges. The brand expanded into a multimedia franchise, with Barbie starring in video games, many direct-to-video CGI movies, and, recently, streaming shows. But alas, she had never made her mark on the big screen…until now.
After six decades of delighting children (including girls) as a doll and CGI movie star, the delightful, peppy, and fashion-loving woman finally receives the big-screen treatment, courtesy of Warner Brothers and rising filmmaker Greta Gerwig. Considering its recent superhero movies failing to keep itself alive, it's amusing the studio is now relying on a famous doll to save the day. However, instead of being animated like the direct-to-video movies and streaming shows, the film is giving Barbie a live-action makeover in the form of Margot Robbie, who's still attempting to find a strong box office draw, and a meta approach to the brand's history. Were those two things able to help the film retain the franchise's fashionable legacy? Let's find out.
The story centers on Barbie (Robbie), a chirpy, happy-go-lucky woman residing in Barbieland. In this overly pink and matriarchal utopia, all women are self-confident, self-sufficient, and successful. Known as "Stereotypical Barbie", Barbie spends her days with the other Barbies while their Ken counterparts hang out at the beach. During a dance party, Stereotypical Barbie suddenly becomes affected by concerns about her mortality, resulting in her being depressed and experiencing physical changes. She then meets with Weird Barbie (McKinnon), an outcast who informs her she must travel to the real world to find her owner to recover from her mysterious affliction. Joined by a Ken (Gosling) who has a crush on her, Stereotypical Barbie embarks on a daring quest to find her owner while avoiding capture by the CEO of Mattel (Ferrell).
I was in a weird phase where I had a soft spot for Barbie during the early 2000s. It was the decade when I was introduced to the brand through the franchise's direct-to-video movies that little girls can't get enough of. I even have some of them on VHS, including the Nutcracker one and the brand's take on "Rapunzel". By the time I started high school, I had completely grown out of that phase in favor of big boy things like anime and explosions and stuff. So watching this movie made me hearken back to when I was fascinated by seeing CGI Barbie on television. It was definitely a bizarre time I had during my childhood. Regardless, I was impressed that a film based on the brand actually exists after many years of animated content made for video tapes and streaming services. But is it too little, too late for its long-awaited big-screen debut? Actually, not at all.
Not only was "Barbie" a surprisingly fun and constantly hilarious trip through the pink and fabulous world of the brand, but it's also a showcase of its everlasting relevancy that doesn't feel too much like a pointless toy commercial. I would describe "Barbie" as a combination of "Toy Story" and "The Lego Movie". These vibes came from the Barbies and Kens being toys brought to life through children's imaginations and how their owners reflect their emotions onto them. But as the movie progresses, it feels more like a live-action "Lego Movie" without the stop-motion Lego people. It's not just because of the production design and the satirical humor. It's also due to it expressing the brand's purpose through its themes. "The Lego Movie" celebrates the franchise's ability to allow people to express their creativity and specialness, while "Barbie" honors the doll line for empowering women.
However, what makes "Barbie" stand out from "The Lego Movie" is that it also acknowledges the harmful effects the dolls can have on children. Those include unrealistic beauty standards and shallow consumerism. I told you this brand isn't without a few controversies. This isn't the usual "Barbie" movie you've seen on home video or even on Netflix. Instead, it's a celebration of the iconic doll's legacy and a bold satirization of the trend and the Barbie/Ken relationship that isn't afraid to admit the brand's flaws. More importantly, the elements were balanced effectively with its complex themes of patriarchy, womanhood, and humanity regarding Gerwig's direction and screenplay, which she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach.
This movie was a big step for Greta Gerwig as a filmmaker and storyteller. After directing two fantastic female-led films, she's tasked with helming a big studio blockbuster, let alone a movie based on Mattel's fashion dolls. Unsurprisingly, I left the theater impressed with what she accomplished. Even though a few moments could've come from any director or any toy-based movie from the past, it felt more like Gerwig was taking control of the ship to reflect the story she wanted to tell. I would also acknowledge her approach to the set designs, especially Barbieland. Through its fantastic use of practical effects and creativity regarding its physical comedy, it resembles a Barbie playset being brought to life through the eyes of a child. The script was spot on for its clever dialogue and subversion of its tropes, even if some were limited or rushed, mainly the "Real World" shenanigans and the mother/daughter relationship between Gloria (Ferrera) and Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt). Regardless, it was a suitably-paced and gratifying experience that further displays Gerwig's dazzling talents as a writer and director.
But it wasn't just Gerwig that helped make "Barbie" a success in my eyes. The incredible cast also made it overly charming and oozing with pinkness and heart. One of the cast's highlights is Margot Robbie as Stereotypical Barbie. It's tough to imagine anyone else playing the live-action version of Barbie because she nailed every part of what makes Barbie special. She's also part of why I think she's one of the most enjoyable actresses working in Hollywood. Robbie embodies her roles with abundant charm and humor, but she's also unafraid to express her authentic emotions. Her performance as Barbie is no exception. I would also credit Ryan Gosling for providing plenty of laughs as Ken, who also has a compelling arc of his own. In fact, it might be one of the best things I've seen from him in his career. Kate McKinnon and Simu Liu also steal the show as Weird Barbie and Ken #2, respectively. Good on them for still hanging on to their careers. America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt were suitable in their roles as Gloria and Sasha, but their characters' strained relationship felt a tad unrewarding. I think they could've done more with that plot element without straying too far from the movie's intended purpose. I would say the same for Will Ferrel as the CEO, who barely had anything to do in the movie's third act despite his passable performance. Of course, I can't forget about Michael Cera, who also got the same amount of laughs as the rest regarding his role as Allan.
Another element I enjoyed was the soundtrack. The score by Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt was delightful to listen to, but the original songs performed by various artists were different beasts altogether. The songs easily reflect the movie's silly and colorful vision of the Barbie World without appearing pointless and distracting. If I were to choose which song I liked the most, it would be Dua Lipa's "Dance the Night" for the Barbieland dance party sequence. It has that "dance your heart out" vibe that's combined well with the characters' rhythmic and diverting choreography.
Overall, "Barbie" cleverly subverts the stereotypical toy-based formula to provide a highly entertaining and surprisingly thoughtful commentary on Mattel's beloved franchise. While I wouldn't put it in the same league as "The Lego Movie" regarding its few narrative shortcomings, it's still a delightfully fresh and witty approach to the doll that started the female revolution. From its colorful cast led by the talented Margot Robbie to Greta Gerwig's confidence behind the camera, the film showcases that this plastic life is still fantastic. If you love or somehow dislike Barbie, this movie will not disappoint you.