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Barbie Review: Greta Gerwig Delivers a Fantastic Barbie Movie

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Barbie review
Margot Robbie in Barbie (Credit: Warner Bros)

Making a live-action Barbie movie is an ambitious and, some would posit, ill-advised undertaking. Bringing the popular children’s doll to life could result in an endlessly mockable farce that didn’t end up being appealing to either kids or adults. But Greta Gerwig’s lively film knows exactly what it wants to be, which is so many things, boldly – and correctly – claiming in its advertising material that it’s a film that will appeal both to those who love and hate Barbie. Gerwig walks a particularly delicate tightrope by imagining Barbie in spectacular color within her own world and keeping a zany plot laced with subtext in check at the same time.

Things are glorious in Barbie Land when the film opens, with Barbie (Margot Robbie) summing it all up by marking the best day, adding that yesterday, tomorrow, and every day from now until forever also fit that bill. It is indeed idyllic for Barbie, though Ken (Ryan Gosling) isn’t quite as happy and only cheerful if Barbie notices and acknowledges him. But everything changes when Barbie starts thinking about death and experiences a bout of progressively more distracting setbacks, including the sudden appearance of flat feet. Grappling with her sense of self, Barbie opts for the only logical fix: travel to the real world and see what’s happened there to make her suddenly become a different person. 

Prior to Barbie’s decision to immerse herself in an environment audiences will recognize as their own, Barbie magnificently recreates a world typically confined to the creative minds of young children. Barbie awakens in her dream house and slides down to make herself breakfast, which of course she doesn’t actually eat. She reacts to the water coming out of the shower even though none does, and she gets into her car by stepping off the roof and floating down to the driver’s seat. It’s a fun way to mimic the play that so delights kids and to show how Barbie exists. It’s an approach that brings to mind the “Everything is Awesome” signature song from The LEGO Movie.

The aesthetic design of Barbie Land is a wonder to behold, and credit is owed most heavily to Jacqueline Durran, who utilizes bright colors and specific outfits to translate doll clothing to the human body with eye-popping success. Production designer Sarah Greenwood works with a terrific art direction and set decoration team to literally build her world, and also to show the cardboard cutout-like journey that Barbie and Ken must make to travel to a faraway place called Los Angeles. It truly does feel like Barbie is alive and her universe is real, and the changes that occur once Barbie departs her familiar surroundings are equally purposeful and mesmerizing.

Barbie review
Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in Barbie (Credit: Warner Bros.)

In her script with longtime life partner and frequent collaborator Noah Baumbach, Gerwig eschews many commonly-held beliefs about Barbie and her influence on society. This isn’t merely a live-action Barbie story, but instead one that turns the entire idea of her on its head. In Barbie Land, women can do anything and run the world. When she enters Los Angeles, she goes over to a crew of construction workers expecting a friendly greeting from an all-female team only to be berated with sexual innuendos from the males who ogle her. When Barbie expresses that Barbie Land has been able to make the world an excellent place for women, she truly believes it, even if, as she slowly learns, that’s hardly the case in today’s world.

This is a Barbie tale that celebrates diversity and individuality, presented from a lens of uniformity where everyone is either Barbie or Ken, with a few notable exceptions, like the pregnant doll Midge and Ken’s best friend Allan, who both feel distinctly out of place as lone models (and were both at one point actual dolls sold by Mattel). It’s a clever way of representing the many forms that Barbie has taken over the years and more recent attempts to be inclusive and capture all types of people, and there’s little subtlety to the way in which this film skewers reductive attitudes. The all-male executive team from Mattel, led by Will Ferrell’s temperamental CEO, is a particularly glaring example, one that is especially noteworthy given Mattel’s role in making this film.

Though there’s a clear message of freethinking and acceptance in this film, it’s also all about fun. Robbie, who delivered an unforgettably energetic turn in Babylon last year, is the perfect choice to play Stereotypical Barbie, as she describes herself, and extracts layers of emotion from a character whose primary function might otherwise have been to just smile and look pretty. Gosling is completely in on the joke in his send-up of Ken, and it’s nice to see the typically more serious actor loosen up.

A stacked ensemble cast features a number of standouts, including Issa Rae, Hari Nef, Emma Mackey, and Alexandra Shipp as variations of Barbie and Simi Liu and Kingsley Ben-Adir as variations of Ken. America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt also enhance their scenes as Gloria and Sasha, two women from the real world with a complicated relationship with Barbie.

There’s much to contemplate in this cinematic celebration of all things Barbie, including the potential harm that her existence and the marketing of perfection has done to young children since she was first put on the market. While it’s possible that young audiences will enjoy this film, it’s sure to appeal much more heavily to those who grew up either playing with or being aware of Barbie (which should be just about everyone), allowing them to indulge in a bit of nostalgia while coming at it with a slightly more enlightened and reflective perspective. Overall, it’s a blast that’ll leave audiences cheering. 

Grade: B+

Abe Friedtanzer
Abe Friedtanzer
Abe Friedtanzer has been the editor of MoviesWithAbe.com and TVwithAbe.com since 2007, and has been predicting the Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, and SAG Awards since he was allowed to stay up late enough to watch them. He has attended numerous film festivals including Sundance, TIFF, Tribeca, and SXSW, and was on a series of road trips across the United States with his wife, Arielle, before they moved to Los Angeles. He is a contributing writer for Above the Line, Awards Radar, AwardsWatch, Below the Line News, CinemaDailyUS.com, The Film Experience, Film Factual, and Gold Derby.
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