[Co-published with Geek Vibes Nation.]
Barbie is one of the year’s most fascinating theatrical experiences before a single frame rolls across the screen.
All you have to do is look around you. My screening, for instance, hosted children, teenagers, younger and older adults. Some were dressed in pink, some not, but they all watched for their compelling reasons. Barbie has unlocked a curiosity, if not an outright fervor, amongst the general public that is often only reserved for the most financially reliable blockbusters (and even those are struggling to make a dent, particularly this summer). You can chalk it up to the most extravagant marketing campaign in recent film history, but is that all? Shouldn’t there be something more to corral such a broad subsection of moviegoers? And whatever that “more” is, whether it be irony or honest enthusiasm, what does Barbie do with it?
Director Greta Gerwig takes her audience to Barbie Land, a mythical, pink landscape where the Barbies and Kens live in endless, perfunctory harmony. We see this world through Stereotypical Barbie’s (Margot Robbie) eyes, the Barbie who we instinctively imagine “Barbie” to be: blonde, thin, and white. Her perfect life of hosting dance parties with planned choreography and bespoke songs is interrupted by intrusive thoughts about dying. To fix it, Barbie must travel to the real world and restore the balance. Joining her on this journey is Ken (Ryan Gosling), whose sole purpose is to haplessly try to attain her affection.
Barbie and Ken quickly discover how the real world starkly differs from their own. The Barbies do everything in Barbie Land, while the Kens do little more than share ice cream cones and “beach.” In our world, objectifying and harassing women and deifying unremarkable men is standard. That dissonance triggers an existential crisis in the dolls. Their exploits disrupt the delicate balance between the real world and Barbie Land, leading Barbie to seek the help of Mattel employee Gloria (America Ferrera).
One of Barbie’s most remarkable traits is its mere existence. Anyone familiar with Gerwig’s creative work likely wouldn’t expect a straightforward story about Barbie and Ken’s cookie-cutter lives. Still, Barbie’s metatextual commentary about the sociopolitics of feminism and misogyny is stunningly bold for a film leveraging American history’s most memorable toy brand. The script, co-written by Noah Baumbach, touches upon conversations and conclusions about society and Mattel itself, which undoubtedly inspired boardroom panic. (The number of “I can’t believe they got away with that” gasps this film inspires has no modern equal).
And yet, Gerwig’s audacity has its limits. Her film doesn’t offer galvanizing solutions for ending misogyny or achieving a gender-equitable paradise. The film’s weakest part, the bumbling Mattel executives led by Will Ferrell, challenges the follies of performative feminism but doesn’t fully interrogate it. Gerwig thrillingly asks the right questions but doesn’t quite point to answers. But should that be the point of Barbie, a marvel of its existence?
Rather than fiercely-drawn politics, “purpose” is Barbie’s driving force. Gerwig pushes humans and toys through our world’s rigidly-defined gender roles and explores the psychological damage they cause. Barbie, Ken, and Gloria discover that society’s expectations and demands have nearly erased their sense of self, muddying what matters to them as individuals. The realization is even more damning when they discover how brittle and formless those gender roles are (Ken honestly thought “patriarchy” was about horses, a particularly sharp satirical observation). Gerwig’s thematic focus on individual purpose, what someone is made for, may lack an upfront political punch. Yet, the emotional, deeply personal response that lingers as the film settles is equally potent.
Barbie’s existential leanings don’t keep it from being a delight. Gerwig crafts an experience that affixes a smile to your face. She loads nearly every frame with more charm than you can process in one sitting. More than just a visual feast, the film is astonishingly clever in embracing Barbie’s artifice, blending tongue-in-cheek humor and sincerity in every shot and line. The production design of Barbie Land and, surprisingly, the Mattel offices is extraordinary, a clarion call for practical sets. The costumes are exquisite, guaranteed to be Halloween staples for years (Warner Bros. Discovery would be fools not to release a certain sweatshirt worn by a certain Ken). Even weaving through its heavier themes, Gerwig keeps solid grasp of the tone and pace, keeping the good-natured warmth emanating through the screen.
Also helping maintain Barbie’s humor and warmth is its brilliant cast, a fantastic ensemble led by Margot Robbie. Cliched as it may be, the actress was simply born to play Barbie. Robbie hits every note with wide-eyed optimism, sparkling naivete, and gentle grace that is often the film’s secret emotional weapon. She takes Barbie’s plastic underpinnings and imbues them with a radiance poised to redefine the character for generations. Ryan Gosling goes for broke as Ken, having a blast as he sheds all inhibitions in service to Barbie. He pairs his comedic brilliance with a disarming vulnerability and bitter resentment that I wish Gerwig explored further in his story. Seeing America Ferrera in a prominent role like this is a joy, especially as she delivers the deeply-resonant centerpiece speech that evoked the most powerful reactions at my screening.
The impact of Gloria’s third-act speech brings us back to what Barbie accomplishes with its audience. Some may consider Gerwig’s first foray into IP-driven filmmaking as frustratingly neutral in its politics, however savvily it introduces them. It does resemble an Intro to Gender Studies class in that regard. However, observing the children, teenagers, and younger and older adults watching this boldly pink, unabashedly feminine, emotionally engaging film, you can’t help but wonder if that was precisely the point. Gerwig united an unprecedented swath of people around the prospect of reconsidering gender politics in their lives, through the eyes of its most recognizable avatar. Like its subject, Barbie’s accessibility is its strength, and Gerwig’s successful wielding of it is a strategic, subversive, creative triumph.