By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
It’s kind of miraculous that a live-action Barbie movie hasn’t happened until now. In an era in which Disneyland rides are readily adapted into theatrically released films, toys like Transformers spawn entire franchises, and titles like The Emoji Movie feature regularly at the multiplex, nothing is safe from adaptation as everything (and anything) can be the basis of a new movie or television show. Applying a cynical lens to this state of cinema may lead to criticisms of the current landscape of films and their perceived consumption by consumerist sensibilities. As such, a movie called Barbie based on the classic line of dolls from Mattel could easily go awry, and in more ways than one. Thankfully, this is not the case as Barbie is spectacularly brought to life in a clever and subversive satirical fantasy by writer/director Greta Gerwig.
Barbie stars Margot Robbie as Stereotypical Barbie (or just ‘Barbie’), who lives among a range of Barbies in the fantastical realm of Barbieland. It’s a perfect matriarchal society in which women are empowered and confidently lead successful lives, while their male Ken counterparts spend the day beaching at the beach. Soon, trouble arrives in paradise, however, as Barbie encounters an existential crisis, burdened by worries of mortality, flat feet, and cellulite. Determined to fix these problems by finding the child that is playing with her (yes, this is a little confusing), Barbie and Ryan Gosling’s Ken journey to the real world and embark on an adventure that reshapes their lives forever.
Not too long into the runtime of Barbie and one is likely to be stricken with some bewildered thoughts about the film. How in the world did this movie get made? How were they allowed to do that and say this? How is this film the very first live-action Barbie movie? Resounding praise must go to Greta Gerwig, who makes a movie that is subversive above all else. Every step of the way, Gerwig’s sharp script (co-written with her husband Noah Baumbach) departs from the beaten path in favor of an entirely different flavor of cinematic experience. It’s not an exaggeration to say the film industry hasn’t seen a movie like Barbie before, one whose glaringly popular IP that inspired it is so decidedly at odds with its abstract and uncanny approach.
Far more than a meta-aware satire, Barbie is somehow a rollicking fantasy adventure, a rousing feminist commentary, and a laugh-out-loud comedy in equal measure. The film deftly juggles different genres and tones in Barbie, never overloading the audience with too much heightened humor and only occasionally becoming heavy-handed with its messaging. Spectacular production design and an ethereal quality to the film make Barbie unexpectedly play out like a fantasy movie, in a strange way not dissimilar from Labyrinth and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But comparisons are ultimatley hard to make as Barbie feels so genuinely original, something that can rarely be said for an adaptation of such established IP.
Perhaps more poignantly, however, the fantasy is merely a backdrop to what is ultimately an extremely intellectual and deeply personal movie. Barbie creatively rebels against the movie one would think it should be in favor of one that Greta Gerwig feels it needs to be. It’s a movie that can be enjoyed superficially as a wink-to-the-audience fantasy comedy, but maximal effectiveness comes from what the film has to say. At times, this commentary is fantastic and applause-worthy, especially a scene in which Margot Robbie delivers a career-best performance and America Ferrera produces a rousing, applause-worthy soliloquy that resonates so strongly. Other times though, the film has a little too much to say, especially in a third act that becomes overcrowded with its messaging. All of it is very well-intended – it just all becomes a tad overwhelming with so many important themes and ideas ambitiously explored in such depth.
Effective, albeit overwhelming, in its commentary, Barbie is undoubtedly an extraordinary imaginative and stylized movie. This success must be attributed to the creative dyad at the heart of the film – Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie. Gerwig and Robbie are beautifully in sync with one another with both artists delivering their most ambitious work to date. Just as much as Gerwig knows how to set up a great joke and Robbie knows how to land the punchline, the two also find themselves capably handling expertly crafted commentary about gender roles and expectations. This movie simply would not work without the combination of Gerwig and Robbie and, in less capable hands, could have been suffocating and meandering.
Quickly becoming a favorite to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards is the Ken to Margot Robbie’s Barbie – Ryan Gosling. Donning a wardrobe that needs to be seen to be believed, Gosling is spectacular in Barbie. He is behind the film’s best laughs, with every mannerism or quirk so meticulously selected by the actor. There are a number of other supporting players that warrant praise for their performances, but perhaps none greater than Rhea Perlman. Although only appearing in two scenes, Perlman profoundly affects the movie and is the driving force behind the film’s climatic emotional punch.
Throughout this two hour journey of fantastic visuals and affecting commentary, Gerwig employs a three-act structure to her film, with each act yielding mixed results. The opening act is dreamlike and, in some ways, slightly unnerving, although it’s unclear if this was the intended emotion Gerwig hoped to elicit. The audience is introduced to Barbieland and treated to all sorts of visual dazzle and funny jokes about the heavenly matriarchal society. Things become more muddled with the introduction of Kate McKinnon’s character, who is termed Weird Barbie. Weird Barbie tells Stereotypical Barbie that she must journey from Barbieland to the real world in order to find the girl who is playing with her and resolve her existential crisis. Why does Stereotypical Barbie need to do this? Why would going to the real world help resolve her anxieties? Even more broadly than these questions, what is Barbieland? Is it an alternate reality? Or is it some kind of ethereal, idyllic world where the Barbie dolls reside? Unfortunately, it’s all a little to abstract and unclear – so much so that true enjoyment of Barbie will really require one to not overthink the film’s narrative or premise. This is emphasized rather explicitly in the film when a character raises a question about what Barbieland is, and the question is quickly dismissed. Gerwig is uninterested in world-building or taking time to explain the rules of Barbieland and the real world. On the other hand, this makes the film refreshingly abstract and, on the other hand, renders it difficult to wrap one’s head around if thought about too extensively.
Barbie is an aesthetically marvelous fantasy adventure that is as subversive as it is entertaining. Narratively, the film becomes muddled in confused mythology and storytelling, but far greater success is found with its poignant feminist commentary and wide range of laughs. Margot Robbie is excellent and delivers a career-best performance in a scene that features a scene-stealing America Ferrera producing an emotional and disturbingly relevant monologue. Ryan Gosling is simply superb as Ken, while Rhea Perlman rounds out the film with genuine and unexpected heart. Director Greta Gerwig swings for the fences with a highly ambitious film, one that doesn’t always stick the landing, but remains commendable for how beautifully original and abstract it is. Perhaps most shockingly, Gerwig manages to take a multi-million dollar IP and adapt into a subversive intellectual experience, one that even the most cynical of moviegoers would have to applaud as unique.