Barbie doesn't just make a toy seem real, it makes that toy's literal and philosophical journey to reality the core of its story. Photo courtesy: Warner Brothers

Film Review: Barbie

Film Reviews

Director: Greta Gerwig

Warner Brothers
In Theaters: 7.21

Spoiler Warning: This review covers plot details from the end of Barbie.

You probably know about Greta Gerwig‘s Barbie. From the immense hype on the internet to the intense marketing campaign, rarely does a movie come out of Hollywood that paints the town with so much pink. People all over the country have been preparing outfits, planning parties and welcoming the film with a celebration of the fantastic, plastic icon’s arrival to cinemas everywhere. With a pre-game like that, it’s no wonder Barbie is already becoming a box office smash, but it’s not just a familiar IP that has people excited, it’s what Gerwig chose to do with Barbie, specifically.

We follow a Barbie (one of many, this one played by Margot Robbie) living in  Barbieland as she embarks on a journey to the real world to solve a very serious problem: She’s malfunctioning. The complex physics of Barbieland state that her new and sudden thoughts of death and forming cellulite mean that she’s being played with in the real world by a girl experiencing these same thoughts and concerns. This is especially alarming as the Barbies are all under the belief that after their creation, they freed the women of the real world to enjoy any career, equal rights and a matriarchal utopia not unlike the one in which they live. Robbie’s Barbie sets out to find the girl and set things right, and she’s joined by a Ken, played by a show-stopping Ryan Gosling, who’s been feeling a little lost in Barbieland and undervalued by Barbie. Things get out of hand when Gosling’s Ken learns about patriarchy in the real world and introduces the concept in Barbieland, meanwhile Barbie learns a Mattel secretary, Gloria (America Ferrera), is the one whose feelings have caused her to malfunction. Barbie is joined by Gloria and her daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) as they return to Barbieland and attempt to stop the Kens from writing this newfound toxic masculinity into the Barbieland constitution.

Believe me, the plot runs a lot smoother on screen, and it’s in no small part because Gerwig is at the top of her game. Pulling inspiration from the Golden Age of Cinema (all but two films on her official watchlist are pre-1990, and more than half are pre-1970), Barbie is full of matte paintings, practical effects, physical comedy and even a dream ballet, all directed joyfully and to great effect. The star-studded cast consistently knocks it out of the park as well, with Gosling’s performance easily worthy of a Supporting Actor nomination and Kate McKinnon as Weird Barbie and Michael Cera as the lesser-known Allan doll offering familiar—but not unwelcome—comedic turns. Robbie is fantastic, too, practically carrying the emotional weight of the film on her shoulders, but it’s America Ferrera who drops the mic. 

Toward the end of Act two, Ferrera’s Gloria gives an emotional and blunt monologue about society’s expectations of women. She builds and rouses the Barbies in an effort to empower and awaken them, earning (from my theater’s audience) a round of applause, cheers and a deserved  “Amen.” In Barbie, Greta Gerwig finds something sacred in the power of womanhood and in the power of what Barbie can mean. She is speaking directly to the women of the world, and they are responding.

This isn’t just a 90-minute puff piece for Mattel’s First Lady in which a toy company can buy out one of our great modern directors in order to feign feminism. Barbie is in direct dialogue with the doll’s 60-year past. Through Sasha, Gerwig is able to present the other side of the debate: that Barbie creates an unrealistic ideal for women, that it’s harmful to young girls and that it “set women back fifty years.” Meanwhile, Barbie sees herself as a role model for young girls, as someone to exemplify the possibility to be anything a girl wants to be. It’s a clever way to address the doll’s legacy, even if some of the tongue-in-cheek lines by Will Ferrel‘s Mattel CEO can’t quite shake Barbie’s corporate influence.

Final spoiler warning for the ending of Barbie!

Ultimately, the Barbies dismantle Kens’ misguided societal change, and the Kens are forgiven for getting swept up in toxic masculinity. (There’s an entire review’s worth of commentary I’d love to write about Gerwig’s accurate and touching portrayal of how men are hurt by the patriarchy that I don’t have time for.) Once Barbieland is restored, however, Robbie’s Barbie still doesn’t feel satisfied. She’s not a Barbie anymore, and she doesn’t know where she belongs. Barbie creator Ruth Handler (introduced earlier in the film and played sweetly by Rhea Perlman) steps in and takes Barbie aside to have a chat. She tells Barbie she can become human, and it won’t be easy. Barbie agrees, and then is told simply to feel. Barbie closes her eyes, and a dream-like, childhood montage plays. Barbie isn’t just an idea anymore. She’s experiencing what it can be to be a woman and to be truly alive.

End of spoilers for Barbie

Mattel has announced plans for more toy adaptations, and while we don’t yet know how those will turn out, it feels unlikely these other toy brands will feel as special as Barbie does. Barbie doesn’t just make a toy seem real; it makes that toy’s literal and philosophical journey to reality the core of its story. What if an idea made to entertain girls could grow beyond its nature and become a real woman, recognizing the pressures of society and still choosing to face it all each day? Isn’t that what being a woman is, anyway? It’s an inspiring message worth digging into, and even if you don’t feel like digging, there’s still plenty to enjoy. Barbie is a rip-roaring good time with consistent, laugh-out-loud comedy and a beating heart that could power a pink Corvette. Gather your favorite people and take a trip to Barbieland as soon as you can. –Max Bennion

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