Review: Barbie

A live-action movie starring the world’s most famous doll Barbie is the latest film from indie filmmaker Greta Gerwig.

What’s Going On?

Barbie lives in Barbieland, a world made up primarily of the many different kinds of Barbies: doctors, writers, astronauts and of course Barbie (later referred to as Stereotypical Barbie, the Barbie you imagine if someone said Barbie). There are also the Kens, a group of usually well-meaning idiots with no agency or ambition, who exist as an accessory to the Barbies. Every day is a day of perfect happiness and effortless perfection until things start going wrong for Barbie; her feet do not arch, her shower is cold and she has thoughts of death. This leads Barbie (and Ken, who tags along) to journey to the Real World to solve the problem that is causing these issues.

Behind The Scenes

Barbie // credit: Warnes Bros Pictures
Barbie // credit: Warnes Bros Pictures

Barbie is a Mattel toy created by Ruth Handler in the 50s, the film is directed by Greta Gerwig and co-written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, both indie darlings. Gerwig originally found fame as an actor in films like Frances Ha and Damsels In Distress, before also moving into directing in films like Lady Bird and Little Women. Baumbach is a writer and director known for films like Marriage Story and Greenberg and Gerwig and Baumbach have worked together many times.

In Front Of The Camera

Barbie // Credit: Warner Bros Pictures
Barbie // Credit: Warner Bros Pictures

The film has a huge cast but first and foremost is Margot Robbie playing Barbie, she is the star and everyone else takes a backseat to her. Then there is Ryan Gosling playing Ken, America Ferrera as Gloria (a real-world Barbie fan), Kate McKinnon as Weird Barbie, a host of actors playing various Barbies and Kens (the credits usually just list them as Barbie or Ken), and Will Ferrell playing the clueless CEO of Mattel.

Does It Work?

Making a live-action Barbie movie in 2023 that wasn’t in some way awful was going to take a very ambitious and risky play, that’s what Greta Gerwig tried to do…and she did it. The opening scene of Barbie is a parody of the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, invoking such an iconic film is a risk, but Barbie pulls it off and this sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Barbie is a fun, intelligent, hilarious and moving film. It recognises the love many people have for Barbie but also the animosity many have toward it. It acknowledges the way there is a Barbie who can be anything: doctor, president, writer as very uplifting, but also recognises the Barbie whose unreal physical perfection damaged generations of children.

Barbie //credit: Warner Bros Pictures

In terms of the cast everyone from Margot Robbie down knows exactly what their job is. Robbie is superb as the quintessential perfect Barbie who has a breakdown when her perfection slips, she is endearing and at times very vulnerable. Barbie’s mix of genuine intelligence, the naivety of the Real World when she lives in a perfect one, and her heartfelt desire to do right by people, especially the young girls who play with Barbies is charming. Ryan Gosling is never not funny, every second on screen he is putting in an amazing comic performance, the awful cloying puppy-dog attitude of following Barbie everywhere, his realisation that in the Real World women do not run everything (as they do in Barbieland) and demanding to be made a CEO or be allowed to perform operations simply because he is a man is hilarious. The transformation Ken undergoes on the return to Barbieland gets even funnier. Will Ferrell’s CEO is bizarrely funny, going between utterly idiotic, to spouting generic pro-women talking points like how there has been at least one…maybe two?…women CEOs of Mattel, to at one point sincerely declaring he didn’t become CEO of Mattel to make money to inspire young girl’s dreams only minutes after calling Barbie a jezebel.

Importantly, in Barbieland they believe that everything in the Real World has been fixed, especially in relation to women and men. The realisation that this isn’t the case is shocking and allows the film to confront the contradictions of Barbie as a role model over the generations. Gloria, the Real World Barbie fan, points out the daily struggles, impossible contradictions and hardships of being a woman. Stereotypical Barbie utterly collapses because she feels she isn’t enough and yet is introduced to the audience as flawless perfection, after a short time dealing with the Real World her confidence and belief in herself is shattered.

There has been a backlash against Barbie, and as with any film, its okay to not like it, for any number of reasons it might not be the film for you. But so much of this backlash is not about the quality of the film, but that it is “woke”, and it is telling when the first comments of a review are about dragging it into ridiculous culture war territory and not if it was any good. Barbie is a brilliant film and a film for anyone. Gerwig has done something truly spectacular in making this film work so well.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Also Read: “Little Women” & Cinema for the Self Partnered

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Posted by
Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.