'Barbie': A Fun, Heartfelt, and Surprisingly Existential Blockbuster
As Barbie begins, we are quickly introduced to the vibrant, utopian, and of course, very pink, world known as Barbieland. It is a world populated with various iterations of the beloved doll that has remained a cultural phenomenon for 64 years, ranging from President Barbie, Doctor Barbie, and an entire Supreme Court comprised of Barbies, to name a few. It is a paradise led by women where every night is girl's night and everything is bright and happy. In other words, it plays into the iconography and ideals that most people associate with the brand. It almost lulls the viewer into a sense that this film will be pure bubblegum fun, but when Margot Robbie's Stereotypical Barbie delivers the line "Do you guys ever think about dying?" in the middle of an elaborate dance party, the film begins to reveal its true self. It takes an existential and sociological turn that might take those expecting something lighter and more kid-friendly off guard. However, it ends up retaining a sense of fun and silliness that appeals to younger and older audiences, while also delivering a strong statement on finding your place in the world, and what it means to be a woman.
Barbie (Margot Robbie) lives her life in harmony in Barbieland among her fellow Barbies, but when she begins to experience thoughts of death and develops flat feet and cellulite, it changes everything. After seeking counsel from the quirky and disfigured Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), she embarks on a journey of self-discovery with Ken (Ryan Gosling) to the real world. While Barbie finds that women are not valued nearly as much in the real world, Ken is awestruck by the power and privilege given to men. This leads to a ripple effect that could affect both the real world and Barbieland forever, and it's up to Barbie to restore order to the universe.
If there is anyone who could take a property like Barbie and inject it with humor, heart, and some surprisingly sharp commentary, it's Greta Gerwig. From her mumblecore roots, to her mainstream breakthroughs with Lady Bird and Little Women, Gerwig has proven herself more than capable of adapting her distinct voice to various stories. Barbie is undoubtedly her biggest film to date, and it is also her most ambitious. There are a lot of undercurrents flowing throughout this film, but they all come together to make one of the more creative blockbusters I've seen in some time. I have seen some comparisons to Robert Altman's adaptation of Popeye, and I must say that this is not too much of a stretch. Both films take a well-known property and deliver a weird spin on them. However, Barbie is arguably more accessible in its weirdness, mainly because it is more satirical and has a lighter tone. Gerwig and Noah Baumbach (who co-wrote the film) do a great job of elevating what could have been a hollow, IP driven film, and has a strong emotional core underneath its candy coating.
The script as a whole isn't perfect, and if you really dig into certain aspects, it is a bit messy in places. However, Gerwig's direction is so solid that it makes up for much of the script's flaws. She balances the tone of the film so perfectly, allowing both the film's funniest moments and its most heartbreaking ones to have a strong impact. Not only that, but there is a consistency in this film that keeps its momentum going, and to where it feels like everyone involved is on the exact same page. It feels fully realized, and it is kind of incredible that Gerwig was allowed to make this movie with as much creative freedom as she did. So many of the jokes (especially the ones at the expense of both Mattel and Warner Bros.) are quite brilliant, and the way that the film grapples with Barbie's legacy and cultural perception is surprising, yet rather thoughtful. It doesn't shy away from talking about the negative attitude that some have toward the brand, which gives it a surprisingly self-effacing quality that I would have never expected. Gerwig has so much to say with this film, and it mostly comes out clear as day. There are a few elements that might be slightly undercooked, but the film's overarching ideas on what it means to be a woman and the roles we play in life are incredibly strong, and is sure to resonate with many.
Perhaps the most impressive aspects of the film lie in its production design and cinematography. Much of Barbieland was built specifically for the film, and it is so wonderfully detailed. The vibrant color palette is also fantastic, with the pinks and pastels really popping, and is both enticing and true to the essence of Barbie. Rodrigo Prieto's camera work is excellent as well, as he nails the colorful, sunny aesthetic of Barbieland, as well as the more neutral palette of the real world. The editing is also quite solid, as it keeps the energy flowing, and further plays into the film's big moments hitting as hard as they do.
The casting of Margot Robbie as Stereotypical Barbie is such a slam-dunk, and Robbie herself is so good in the role. It's one thing for her to look the part, but she truly captures the bubbly nature of the character while also allowing that mask to fall and give Barbie some dimension. There is an honesty and commitment that she brings to the role that really gives the character its own identity, and makes it so easy to connect with her. She nails the fish-out-of-water moments as well, and her acting in the film's final moments might be among her best work ever. She is so spectacular here, and I can't imagine anyone else doing the role justice.
Of course, the biggest scene-stealer in the film is Ryan Gosling as Ken (a.k.a. Beach Ken). I've long contested that Gosling is an especially gifted comedic actor, and his work here further underlines that point. He fits into the world of the film seamlessly, and perfectly dialed in to the role. He nails the himbo-like qualities of the role so well, and his arc over the course of the film yields some of its biggest laughs. Gosling is game for everything that is asked of him, and it is absolutely hilarious all throughout.
The rest of the cast also shines, with some of the key supporting actors truly standing out. America Ferrera is perhaps the most grounded performance here, and she carries much of the film's more emotional moments. She has a monologue near the end of the film that is especially powerful, and is one of the highlights of the entire film. I was also impressed by Rhea Perlman, who may only have a couple of scenes, but her presence is so warm and comforting, and makes every moment count. The other Barbies, namely Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Hari Nef, and Sharon Rooney are quite good, as are Ncuti Gatwa and Kingsley Ben-Adir as some of the other Kens. I also loved Michael Cera as Allan, who stands apart from the Barbies and Kens in Barbieland, and he is a true gem here.
Barbie is such a blast from start to finish, and is more than just a movie based on a popular toy. It is a fun, yet heartfelt journey that touches on womanhood and gender roles in a rather poignant way, and is sure to connect with anyone who has ever felt unsure about their place in the world. On top of all this, it is the right amount of goofy and earnest, and ends up being both funny and touching. Barbie is far more original and entertaining than I would have ever guessed, and while I had high hopes going into the film, it still managed to surprise me. It is hands down one of the most delightful films I've seen this year, and further proves that Greta Gerwig is a force to be reckoned with in the director's chair.