Film Review: Barbie


Among the most popular and iconic toys in the world, since its 1959 inception the Barbie doll has delighted children while embodying unrealistic beauty standards for women. Is Barbie a sexist stereotype or neo-feminist icon? Erstwhile indie director Greta Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach ask: why not both?

Barbie (Margot Robbie, perfectly cast) lives her idyllic life in Barbieland™ with all the other Barbies and Kens, where every day is the best day ever (but so was yesterday and so is tomorrow, and the day after and the day after that, forever and always). Barbie always has a great day, we’re told by the film’s narrator (Helen Mirren), but Ken (Ryan Gosling) only has a great day when Barbie looks at him.

It’s a pretty great, if vapid life, until irrepressible thoughts of death begin to intrude on Barbie’s perfect unchanging world. Seeking answers, Barbie visits the prophetic Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), who sends her on a quest to the real world to find her owners Gloria (America Ferrara) and Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), who we learn must be having the thoughts which are transferring to Barbie and collapsing the boundary between Barbieland and the real world.

There are obvious comparisons here with the Toy Story franchise (particularly its sequels) and The Lego Movie, but Gerwig, along with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, have crafted a vision that is uniquely her own. There is tremendous joy in embracing the plastic artifice of Barbie’s reality, from her waterless shower, to the inedible waffles and cream she ‘eats’ for breakfast and the inert waves where Ken poses day after day. Pastels have never looked so blindingly intense, while there is an unstated uncanniness to this world of unending, inedible, inert plastic perfection.

Indeed, those unstated emotions, transmitted through the film’s exquisitely crafted aesthetics and humour – Barbie is an hilarious comedy – are what carry the film, in contrast to its more explicitly declared politics with which it wrestles but inevitably fumbles, caught in a corporate feminist web of its own making. After Barbie (and Ken, tagging along) make it to the real world, the machinery of the plot grinds along in ever-predictable circles with Will Ferrell in an underwritten and pretty pointless role as the corporate head of Mattel. Nevertheless, Robbie and Gosling’s sheer comic force propels the film forward as Barbie wrestles with her newfound complex feelings and Ken marvels at a world run by men.

Still, by the third act it becomes clear that Barbie works better as an idea rather than a narrative, and the corporate paradox at the heart of the film becomes impossible to ignore. Barbie’s feminist intentions are admirable but, like so many plastic ice creams, are indigestible in their clunky declarations, ultimately coming off as rather cynical plays by a corporate machine rehabilitating the image of a product line. This is not to doubt the sincerity of the script written by Gerwig and partner Baumbach, but let’s be in no doubt that the reason we’re seeing those words on screen is a calculated decision by company executives.

Nevertheless, regardless of Mattel’s corporate intentions, Gerwig has crafted a warm, funny and cinematically rich film – if one whose narrative and political ambitions are far less radical than it would like us to suppose. In a cultural moment that seems to be finally tired of franchise IP, Barbie – at once the ultimate symbol of capitalist IP and an original film – is the film of the moment. Whether we wish to embrace or reject such a proposition is a question left hanging but one that is answered is that objects do not have to belong to their creators: even products such as this, packaged and sold en masse. Plastic though Barbie’s world may be, the feelings that it inspires are no less real.

Christopher Machell