Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, which finally arrives this week, is attempting to do many different things at once. It’s trying to pay tribute to the seven-decade history of the Barbie doll character, while at the same time satirizing and deconstructing the Barbie mythology, while also being funny, making a very specific statement about both feminism and modern-day masculinity, and also making time for elaborate sets and even more elaborate musical numbers.
The film succeeds at most of those things, most of the time, although some aspects of it are not so well thought out. That said, the set design and world-building are amazing, and Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling are fantastic as the primary Barbie and Ken.
Directed by Gerwig (who made the acclaimed Lady Bird and Little Women) and written by the director and her partner Noah Baumbach, the film’s conceit matches those of the Toy Story films, as well as Lord and Miller’s The LEGO Movie, with Will Ferrell even returning with another twist on his President Business character.
After an intro, familiar from the trailer, that pays tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey — Oppenheimer, the other big movie this week, had one of those too — we’re introduced to Barbieland, where just about every woman is a different variation of Barbie (Issa Rae, Hari Nef, Alexandra Shipp, and Dua Lipa), and most men are versions of Ken (including Sami Liu, John Cena, and Kingsley Ben-Adir.)
But the main takeaway is that Barbieland is a matriarchy, where women control most functions. Robbie is the main Barbie and Gosling is the main Ken, a himbo who pines after his Barbie but doesn’t have must function otherwise.
When Barbie begins to have unexplained existential doubts, she goes to see “Weird Barbie” (Kate McKinnon), who sends her out to the “real world,” or at least a version of it that looks a lot like Los Angeles. Ken tags along, and neither the real nor Barbieland worlds are ever the same.
The film’s absolute best idea is what happens when Gosling’s Ken gets a whiff of the patriarchy-inflected “real world” and brings those ideas back with him to Barbieland- instantly turning it into a beer commercial colony very much in line with the values of Barstool Sports.
Indeed, the anti-woke gang isn’t going to like this movie, especially the feminist comments delivered in the form of long speeches. But that doesn’t mean the script isn’t full of wit. Frankly, I’m surprised the filmmakers got Mattel to go along with some of the things that happen here, starting with references to the financial scandal that ensnared the inventor of Barbie.
There are a few less-than-successful elements in Barbie. It turns out the dolls take on the personality of the person playing with them, although that’s not an idea that the movie has a great deal of interest in expanding on. Nor are the rules established especially clear; is there a different Barbieland for every Barbie in the world? Nothing involving Will Ferrell and his all-male board is particularly funny, nor does their visit to Barbieland make much sense.
Still, I give Gerwig credit for taking a huge swing with Barbie and mostly connecting.