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Barbie: Pretty and Pensive in Pink

I come not to bury Barbie but to lovingly deconstruct her.

Barbie needs no introduction. She’s the doll, she’s the icon, she’s the force that shapes and reshapes pop culture while constantly being reshaped herself. It’s surprising that it took almost 65 years for her to get her own live-action theatrical movie, and it’s even more surprising that turned out to be something so funny, so entertaining, so inquisitive, and so absurd.

We follow Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie, and yes that is the character’s canonical name) as she goes through her day, spending time in the idyllic Barbieland, waving at the other Barbies, and hanging out on the beach with her needy, insecure boyfriend Ken (Ryan Gosling). But things are starting to change for Barbie. She’s had thoughts of death, and her perfect dream house is subtly turning against her. Worst of all, her permanently-pointed feet have gone flat, and her heels are touching the ground for the first time. After a visit with Barbieland’s outcast oracle Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), Barbie heads to the real world to find out why things are changing and to track down the person playing with her. Oh, and Ken’s there, too.

The film’s tone is set right from the first scenes. In a sharp parody of the “Dawn of Man” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, we see young girls playing with baby dolls. As narrator Helen Mirren tells us that that’s all there was for girls to play with in the past, we see the girls awakened not by a monolith but by a towering Margot Robbie in the original Barbie’s 1959 iconic striped swimsuit. As the familiar strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra swell on the soundtrack, the girls destroy their baby dolls, and we are thrust into the modern day and the perfectly plastic pink streets of Barbieland.

All shall look upon me and accessorize.

And when I say perfectly plastic, I mean that literally. Barbie’s dream house looks like a life-size version of the actual toy, down to the prop food in her fridge. Nothing in Barbieland looks like it’s made of organic material. The sky is clearly a painted backdrop. The waves at the beach are hard and unmoving, as Ken finds out when he tries to surf them and ends up in the hospital, which itself is a giant toy ambulance that opens up into a plastic hot pink triage center. The level of detail and care taken into recreating the world of Barbie is truly staggering. The sheer amount of Pantone 219 involved allegedly even contributed to a worldwide shortage of pink paint.

In general, writer/director Greta Gerwig has gone above and beyond to make Barbieland mimic the experience of playing with Barbie dolls as much as possible. Barbie has no stairs in her dream house; she simply floats down to the street each morning from her bedroom. While it’s a fun visual gag, it also mimics how someone might take the doll from the house to the street while playing by simply placing her on the ground. Barbie never actually eats or drinks; she mimes the actions with the prop food on hand. Her shower has no water coming out of it, but she reacts appropriately when it’s suddenly gone cold.

But the film doesn’t take place entirely in Barbieland, and much of the film’s dramatic heft comes when Barbie and Ken journey into the real world. It’s here that Barbie’s existential questions become a full-blown crisis as she discovers that the perception she had of the real world from her Barbieland bubble is devastatingly wrong. You see, in Barbieland, women run everything. Every Barbie has a job that defines them, and these include President, Supreme Court Justice, Lawyer, Pulitzer Prize-winning Reporter, and Noble Prize-winning Physicist. The Kens’ jobs consist of…Beach. Barbie’s angst rises when she realizes that she’s the only one that doesn’t have a job; she’s just Stereotypical Barbie. She’s the Barbie you think of when you think of Barbie, but she has no title or specific claim to fame of her own.

Had Enough of Your B.S. Barbie

This revelation is at the crux of Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach’s fascinating deconstruction and examination of the very idea of Barbie. Barbie assumes the real world mimics Barbieland and that the Barbies have encouraged women there to thrive. The truth is far more complex. Barbie is at the same time both aspirational and confining. It’s true that Barbie has always been an independent character. She owns her own dream house and car, and she’s had any number of high-powered professions over the years. But her impossible physical standards and the effect they have on culture have overshadowed that and caused no amount of strife to both the people who feel like they have to twist themselves around to emulate her and the people who feel that women must emulate her to have value. One character in the real world outright calls Barbie a fascist at one point, and while not quite the term I’d use, there’s at least a modicum of truth to that.

In general, there is a tremendous amount of emotional turmoil and philosophical navigation running through Gerwig’s film, very little of which was glimpsed in the trailers. The few times that the film’s energy drops is when Gerwig focuses on the deeper themes of the script, often resorting to long monologues. These bits are a bit heavy-handed and blunt, but at the same time, some anvils definitely need to be dropped. These moments still serve the story, and they represent turning points in character evolution, but they also slow the narrative’s momentum like a runner jogging in place at a long traffic light.

Gerwig is good about pivoting back to the clever and absurd comedy promised by the marketing though, and one of the things that keeps the film going regardless of its tonal shifts is Margot Robbie. Robbie has played a long list of iconic women, including Queen Elizabeth I, Tonya Harding, and the fantabulous Harley Quinn. Why not add Barbie to the list, too? Simply put, she’s perfect. 10 out of 10. Beyond simply looking the part, she handles Barbie’s up and downs like the pro she is, keeping Barbie inherently sympathetic. Her comedic timing is on point, and so is her emotional output. We want Barbie to succeed, and we want to go along on this journey with her. She even makes you think of the doll itself in an entirely different light.

But let’s not forget Ken. He might be “just Ken“, as Ryan Gosling plaintively sings at one point, but he’s an equally fascinating character in his own way. Gosling goes all in here in a way I don’t know I’ve ever seen him do before. Ken might be the perfect himbo in so many ways, but Gosling mines the character’s insecurities and self-doubt for both comedic and dramatic gold. He works great with Robbie, and as the film goes on and the heart of Barbie and Ken’s relationship is exposed, Gosling feeds fantastically off the narrative’s energy to evolve his performance.

And now Ken will perform “The Himbo’s Lament.”

This world is made up of more than Barbie and Ken, though. Kate McKinnon is always a welcome presence, and her role as Weird Barbie is custom-made for her comedic sensibilities. She’s the Barbie that got played with too roughly, with chopped up hair, marker on her face, and her legs permanently in the splits. She’s the Morpheus to Barbie’s Neo, and McKinnon’s deadpan delivery sells it instantly. Other notable members of Barbieland include Simu Liu as Ken’s main rival, a more confident and charming Ken, and Michael Cera as Allan, Ken’s forgotten best buddy. Again, this feels like a part made specifically for Cera’s persona, and as much as I’m not really a fan of Cera in general, this works very well.

The real world portions of the film don’t feature as many distinct characters as the Barbieland portions do, but both America Ferrera and Will Ferrell stand out. Ferrera plays a worker at Mattel who ends up helping Barbie in her personal quest, and she ends up being both a reflection of Barbie herself and a commentary on how she affects culture. Ferrell plays the CEO of Mattel, determined to literally put Barbie back in her box and get her back home before anyone discovers her. Both actors lean into their roles, with Ferrera expertly navigating Gerwig and Baumbach’s dialogue and Ferrell being as giddily absurd as he can possibly be without overstaying his welcome.

I realize I’ve spent a long time discussing the cast, but the cast is what makes the movie what it is. The visuals are amazing. The script is overall clever and pointed even if it does occasionally get a little full of itself. The pacing, the energy, the music are all above board (although some of the hyper-pop songs on the soundtrack lack identity). But it’s the cast that really elevates the movie and brings a surprising amount of warmth and life to characters who are supposed to be made of hard, inflexible plastic.

(Internally having an existential crisis)

There’s a lot going on in the Barbie movie, far more than one might expect. It’s impossible to discuss some of the best bits without giving away major spoilers, but trust me when I say I did not see a lot of the plot twists coming. This isn’t just a celebration of Barbie but an affectionate deconstruction of her essence and influence. This isn’t for the kids playing with Barbie now but for all the adults who grew up playing with her. Surprisingly mature and thoughtful, as well as deeper and wittier than you ever thought a Barbie movie could be, it’s both an escape and an emotional thesis. I guess it’s true; Barbie really can be everything.

FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+