Movie Review: She’s Perfect Barbie. He’s Scene-Stealing Ken. Their life in plastic looks fantastic
Jul 19, 2023, 6:05 AM
(Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
For someone who’s 11.5 inches tall and weighs under 8 ounces, poor Barbie’s had to carry an awfully heavy load over the years on that slender, plastic back of hers.
Welcomed as a trailblazer in 1959 — An adult doll! With actual breasts! — she was nonetheless branded an anti-feminist a decade later when women’s rights marchers chanted “I Am Not a Barbie Doll,” referring to her unrealistic body type (and perhaps ignoring the fact that she was single, a homeowner and a career woman).
As years went by, Barbie had her hits (adopting a more inclusive body type, running for president) and misses (exclaiming “Math class is TOUGH!” — ouch). Through it all, this lightning rod in tiny pink heels remained uniquely talented at reinventing herself.
Which is why it makes sense that now, writer-director Greta Gerwig takes Barbie in more than one direction – in every direction, really – in her brash, clever, idea-packed (if ultimately TOO packed) and most of all, eye-poppingly lovely “Barbie,” the brand’s first live action movie.
Is it a celebratory homage to Barbie and her history? Yes. Also a cutting critique, and biting satire? Yes, too. The film is co-produced by Mattel, and they must have felt skittish about some elements — perhaps not Will Ferrell’s reliably buffoonish Mattel CEO, but a far more serious scene where a young girl accuses Barbie of making girls feel bad about themselves. The movie’s also about gender dynamics, mothers and daughters, insidious sexism … and more.
But the neatest trick is how “Barbie,” starring a pitch-perfect Margot Robbie — and after a minute you’ll never be able to imagine anyone else doing it — can simultaneously and smoothly both mock and admire its source material. Gerwig deftly threads that needle, even if the film sags in its second half under the weight of its many ideas and some less-than-developed character arcs.
In any case, boy — or should we say, girl — life in plastic looks fantastic.
A head-spinning opening credits sequence begins with a Barbie history lesson, narrated by Helen Mirren. Then it’s off to Barbie Land, where Barbie lives in her flamingo-pink Dreamhouse, surrounded by other Barbies in theirs.
Other Barbies? Well, we know how many Barbie versions exist on store shelves, and Gerwig and her writing (and life) partner Noah Baumbach take this one step further: If they’re all Barbies, that means “Barbie” is all of THEM. There’s no one Barbie — although Robbie, who plays Stereotypical Barbie (and also produced the film), is the focal point.
And every day’s perfect for Stereotypical Barbie, who wakes in her heart-shaped bed, waves to neighbor Barbies, and heads to the shower, which is dry (there’s no actual water, wind, sun or gravity in Barbie Land.) Her day’s outfit awaits, perhaps a Chanel number, protected by shiny plastic as in a Barbie box. Then she swoops down her hot pink slide to the pool-with-no-water. The sky above is painted blue, the mountains purple. Gerwig was inspired by old soundstage musicals. Architectural Digest even did a piece on the house.
Equally stunning is “Beach” — a place, and also the name of Ken’s career. (Sorry Ken, we should have mentioned you before the 11th paragraph, but we had so much to say about Barbie). The beach is also apparently where Ken lives, because, have you ever heard of Ken’s house? In any case, a very blond Ryan Gosling gleefully chews the scenery — or, inhales it — and is never better than when conveying Ken’s forced enthusiasm with an edge of desperation plus a sprinkle of menace. Also, when dancing.
Speaking of dancing, one night at Barbie’s “giant blowout party,” she suddenly starts thinking about … death. The next morning she has bad breath, and OMG, her famously arched feet go flat! Also gravity happens, so she falls off her house.
After consulting with Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon — who else?) Barbie heads to LA to solve a tear in the boundary between Real World and Barbie Land, singing the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine,” her signature road song. (The film’s high-powered soundtrack features Dua Lipa, Nicki Minaj, HAIM, Lizzo, Billie Eilish, and many others.) There, she and Ken encounter a world with a wrinkle: Men have the upper hand. No all-female Supreme Court here! Hmm, thinks Ken.
On the run from Mattel, Barbie encounters Gloria (America Ferrera), mother of tween Sasha, who has mixed feelings about Barbie, not to mention Mom. In her spare time, Gloria sketches ideas for new Barbies — as in Thoughts of Impending Death Barbie (not to be confused with Depression Barbie.) Gloria helps rescue Barbie and also proves of crucial help when they later discover that Ken and the other Kens — Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir and others — are up to no good.
There’s so much more, and we’re over our word limit — which may just be the feeling Gerwig had when trying to fit her ideas under two hours. And all her actors: It would’ve been great to see more Issa Rae as President Barbie, Emerald Fennell as pregnant, discontinued Midge, and Michael Cera as Allan-who-can-wear-Ken’s-clothes. In any case, the snappy pace starts to lag.
Not to discount Ferrera’s eloquent monologue, in which Gloria educates newly conscious Barbie about the landmines women face trying to navigate social rules that don’t seem to apply to men, like how to be a mom and also a professional, the need to be “thin” but call it “healthy,” and other things.
And if, Gloria concludes, all this is true for a doll just trying to represent a woman … what does that mean for the rest of us? Which is, perhaps, the essential Barbie dilemma — she’s always been judged by rather impossible standards.
Nevertheless, she persists. All 11.5 inches of her. And now she’s Movie Star Barbie.
“Barbie,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release, has been rated PG-13 “for suggestive references and brief language.” Running time: 114 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.