At some point, amid Barbie’s toy existence, somebody joked that Barbie doesn’t have a vagina, and Ken doesn’t have a penis. It’s the easiest and most immediate joke that comes to mind, conjuring the initial perplection when curious kids stripped the dolls. A PG-13 Barbie movie certainly wouldn’t steer away from that gag. Thankfully, there’s more to this picture than the routine cultural gags and brightly-colored bravado associated with the brand.
Director Greta Gerwig delivers an adaptation of a toy that one might not expect. She recognizes that a pop culture icon like the doll deserves more than a simplistic skip and stroll through a sugary world of pink fantasy. The counter people usually mention when criticizing Barbie is that she’s a multi-faceted woman with every career. Gerwig’s film takes this empowering motif to its freeing extreme, making the doll far more than one genre or tonal outfit.
Backing up Gerwig’s style is co-writer Noah Baumbach, bringing his brilliant fusion of knowing comedy and stinging existential dread into this picture. It suits the film well when our first introduction to the central Barbie (Margot Robbie) is in her perfect world, Barbieland. Reflecting the style and manner of the toys, it’s a world where houses come with slides, liquids are pretend, and everything is dolloped with an extra dose of pink. It’s a joyous utopia of many Barbies in positions of power and many Kens, including the central beach-obsessed one (Ryan Gosling), vying for attention. It’s a world so creepily perfect with seemingly no problems.
But, then, there’s a problem. Barbie starts thinking about how every day is the same and that she’ll live forever. Something about that sticks in her mind. She soon realizes that to solve this philosophical problem; she’ll have to venture into the real world. According to the film’s fast-and-loose logic, the reality is a realm that Barbie is aware of but has never visited. She thinks that their presence as dolls in that world might have inspired a feminist movement. She’s in for a rude surprise when she arrives to discover how the patriarchy is still in play.
Rather than water down the unambiguous feminist mindset behind Barbie, this film steers straight into the deep end. Barbie not only becomes aware of the bitterness in how reality has embraced patriarchy but recognizes how feminism has failed and that she might’ve been a part of it. Thoughts of death were hard enough for her, but it’s made all the more intense when one girl (Ariana Greenblatt) gives her a Gen-Z-flavored evisceration. Although the girl goes too far by declaring the doll’s legacy one of fascism, she’s not entirely off base in addressing how feminine values have been packaged and sold off in the name of capitalism.
The doll’s developer, Mattel, is present in this picture, but more like a bumbling company unsure of how to handle Barbie. This leads to some decent yet predictable comedy with Will Ferrell as the CEO, trying to be an ally but constantly tripping over his words and literally tripping over himself. The absurd portrayal of the cold company sets up how Barbie needs to get back to its core message, reiterated by the original creator, Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), who appears more like the voice of God who extolls the virtues of what it means to be a woman beyond fashion and societal expectations.
Even for dealing with such heavy themes delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, the Barbie movie still delivers on the frosting most have come to expect. Barbieland is a silly yet sublime world of imagination and optimism in high volumes. By the third act, when the land seems to descend into anarchy, it’s still a fabulous battle of egos, complete with ridiculous battles of plastic items and a vibrant dance-off that seems to dip into a musical universe. There are a lot of classic Hollywood nods in the vivacious climax of dueling Kens, and Ryan Gosling makes these scenes so uproariously, especially when posed against his rival Ken, played by Simu Liu.
The film’s comedy fluctuates between knowing the toys and biting with the material. There will surely be many memories conjured with the outcasted Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), complete with a scribbled face, cut hair, and legs that can’t stop doing the splits. There may even be a cheer and tear when the audience surrogate of America Ferrera delivers a powerful rant to Barbie about what it really means to be a woman. The meta nature also flows into the production, where the faceless roles of Helen Mirren as the narrator and Lizzo on vocals interject when appropriate. Mirren’s commentary, in particular, is so hilarious knowing of convention that she finds just the right moment to point out a cosmetic problem with the theme and casting.
Barbie is the toy movie I never knew I wanted because it didn’t seem possible, even with the talents of Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach involved. What could’ve been a predictable plotting of “Barbie in the Real World” thankfully becomes something that means a whole lot more than selling more toys. The best films are not bound by what they are about but how they go about it. That’s why Barbie won’t waste time explaining boring crap like how Barbieland is tethered to the real world. Nobody cares about garbage like that besides nitpicky YouTubers who are so poisoned by CinemaSins they can never enjoy movies again. I’d rather a Barbie movie be more culturally astute and philosophically charged than trying to find geographical logic in a film that doesn’t need it. Barbie gives us all that and an eye-popping treat of visual flair, proving the doll really can do anything.