The Barbie marketing campaign deserves raves. Margot Robbie established herself as a living doll on various red carpets — love that Day-to-Night Barbie throwback outfit! — while Ryan Gosling exuded the perfect amount of Ken-ergy. Bravo to all.
Now playtime’s over. And the answer to the big question is yes, life in plastic . . . it’s fantastic. Or, without the benefit of paraphrasing a 1997 novelty song: The Barbie movie is a delightful, highly stylized and super-endearing crowd pleaser. See it once to marvel at the ace performances and impeccable fashion and production design; catch it again just to prove to yourself that the whole thing wasn’t a neon-hued fever dream.
On the candy-coated surface, the much-anticipated comedy chronicles the adventures of the famed fashion doll (Robbie), known here as “Stereotypical Barbie.” In Barbieland — where pink isn’t so much a color as it is a lifestyle choice — she wakes up with a smile and sunny attitude to match. She and her Barbie counterparts, played by the likes of Issa Rae, Hari Nef and Emma Mackey, reign supreme. They are Nobel Prize winners, political leaders, Supreme Court justices. After the sun goes down, they party with choreographed dance moves. All that beachy Ken (Gosling) and his cronies (Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ncuti Gatwa) can do is passively clamor for their attention.
Then one morning, Stereotypical Barbie feels off. Her milk is sour; her perfectly arched feet go flat. She even fancies thoughts of death. The horror! As wise Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) explains it, there’s been a rip in the Barbie continuum. She must travel to “the real world” (i.e., Century City, California) and help the sad little girl playing with her. Only then will happiness return in both spectrums. Ken jumps in the convertible, and away they go on the big journey. It turns out to be a bumpy ride.
That narrative may sound as familiar as a gift-wrapped Barbie Dreamhouse in December. But Barbie happens to be co-scripted and directed by Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, Little Women), a feminist auteur who often brings post-modern sensibilities to her work. This time, she’s loaded her film with innovative and subversive twists. It’s not enough to wring laughs just by watching shiny, happy Barbie and Ken stick out amid cynical Angelinos. They each come to an epiphany early on: Outside their bubble, Alpha Males are in charge and women are subject to endless scrutiny. In a cutting scene, a teen girl (Ariana Greenblatt) lays into Barbie about her role in the quest for unattainable beauty standards. Not even a frantic return trip to Barbieland can restore order.
It’s no fun to ruin the best Barbie surprises. There’s true joy in discovering all the imaginative details, from the fake plastic waves at the beach to the pop music choices. As for Robbie and Gosling? They’re so uncannily cast that they may as well be a special effect unto themselves. Believe the hype about Gosling: The ever-game actor has never been this loose onscreen. (Honestly, did he even sing and dance with this much abandon on The New Mickey Mouse Club back in the day?) Not only is he hilarious, he brings a humanity in showing why Ken should be considered more than Barbie’s boy toy.
Gerwig has a lot to say about the importance of recognizing Barbie’s imperfections, so perhaps it’s fitting that her film is not without its flaws. When the power structure in Barbieland become askew, the Barbies rally each other not by actions but by speeches. Many speeches. Too many speeches. We know, we know — women have it tough! They need to be independent! All the talk about patriarchy and autonomy becomes numbing after awhile and will surely sail over the heads of the young girls (and boys) playing with a Barbie doll at this very moment.
To take it one high-heeled-step further: Barbie is marketed squarely at anyone who owned a Rollerblade Barbie back in the day. That means you, Gen Xers and older Millennials. Nobody else would appreciate all that Day-Glo, much less the Matchbox Twenty reference.
This has been a disappointing summer movie season on too many levels. What a relief that Barbie is a wonderful, whimsical effort delivered in such a brightly colored package. Just don’t box her in.
Barbie opens in theaters on Friday, July 21