REVIEW – Barbie (2023)

Hilarious, irreverent, and a heap of fun, the Barbie movie is surprisingly self-aware for a film based on a toy property and has a lot to say about it.

It’s very easy to be cynical about film adaptations based on a kids property; that it’s just cashing in on nostalgia or a way to market toys to children. However, when talented filmmakers get a hold of it and not only want to tell a good story but also have an important message to get across, then it very much elevates it from expensive toy commercial to important moment in pop culture.

That may sound like hyperbole, yet looking around the zeitgeist, the media coverage, the positive buzz, even the sea of movie goers wearing pink at the cinemas (outside of opening night, some even cosplaying as various Barbies), you can’t help but recognise how much of a big deal this movie is. It’s very reminiscent of other nostalgia properties making it to the big screen in the last couple of decades (or, dare I say it, the return of Star Wars to the big screen). It really is that level of excitement, predominantly for women and maybe even LGBTQI+ and that’s reflected in the worldwide opening weekend box office.

But is it any good?

Oh it’s fantastic. Barbie is hilarious and whimsical fun with an irreverent and surprisingly self-aware attitude that not only drives the core point of the movie but I am shocked Mattel let them get away with as much as they did. It’s also very on-the-nose when it comes to the messaging and allegory, which will either alienate or be all too relatable to sections of the audience.

In Barbie Land, Barbie (Margot Robbie) has her idyllic life turned upside down when she starts to “malfunction” and must venture to the “Real World” to find the little girl playing with her. A doting Ken (Ryan Gosling) follows her and learns about patriarchy.

For all the aforementioned “whimsical fun” things get rather deep and a little darker than one would expect from a movie drowning in nauseating fluoro and bright pastel colours. In some respects, that both enhances the contrast between the humour and the drama but also makes it more palatable. The Barbie movie really hits you on the head with its messaging about feminism and self worth, as well as presenting a blunt and honest critique about the phenomena that is Barbie the toy, its place in the world, and its affect on society.

Again, that might seem like a lot for a movie about a children’s toy but throughout its history, Barbie has gone through cycles of controversy and popularity from inspiring little girls into careers outside of being a caregiver during the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960’s to criticisms of perpetuating impossible beauty standards. It’s surprisingly honest about its past intentions and successes but also its delusions and failures.

I hesitate to claim this but this isn’t really a “kids film”, not in the way Toy Story was a kids movie with enough references and jokes for adults that go over the heads of the little ones. Barbie certainly has enough fun and wackiness to entertain children but the themes are most definitely aimed at an older audience to understand (although, honestly you’re never too young to learn about inequality and how it affects you and everyone around you – do with that what you will). It’d be more appropriate to call it a “dark comedy” in some respects.

The presentation is very much in the vein of a kids movie, in setting up the delineation between the bright colours of Barbie Land and the more muted greys of the “Real World”. There’s also no real logic to some aspects of the movie’s main contrivances such as travelling between worlds, or even when Barbie and Ken get arrested, or anything else really. A little like the moral ramifications of the toys coming to life in Toy Story, it’s best not to think too hard about it and just go along with it.

The many Barbies and Kens all have that “kids show host” energy and delivery to them when appropriate to contrast most of the folks in the real world. It’s really amusing to watch all the familiar dramatic actors having the time of their life as the various dolls and it’s wonderful that there was such diversity in the casting too to reflect the many different dolls Mattel have released over the many decades. Gosling’s Ken is a fluffier amalgamation of the numerous aspects of the “manosphere” in the way his self worth is based on Barbie simply acknowledging him as well as just how easily he’s seduced by “alpha male” nonsense (trust me, it works better than I’m describing it here because I don’t want to spoil it). Gloria (America Ferrara) from the “real world” provides a relatable and (I’m assuming) cathartic portrayal about being a woman and all the frustrations and messy contradictions imposed on such. Both Will Ferrell (Mattel CEO) and Michael Cera (Alan) are pretty much playing their usual archetypes and they have their moments.

The standout, of course, is Robbie’s “Stereotypical Barbie” who not only has to balance the bright and bubbly Barbie persona but also bears the weight of being the heart of the story, as the world comes crashing down around her and everything she knew was wrong. It might be easy to cast any ludicrously attractive actress to play the former but the latter is why Robbie was perfect for the role (Helen Mirren’s narrator may disagree with that assessment though).

Like I said, it can be very on-the-nose when it comes to its satire and messaging but it sort of has to be in order to not dilute or lose the point of the story and allegory being presented. Your mileage may vary but depending on the kind of person you are you’re either going to resent being lectured to or you’re going to feel utter catharsis as the movie lays out everything you’ve ever felt or experienced (as a woman). And, if you’re even a little bit open-minded you may even learn something. It’s definitely not “anti-men” as some have claimed (because that would mean they either didn’t see the film or didn’t understand the third act).

In many respects, Barbie doesn’t forget that this is ultimately about a toy and how it affects people, how it makes children feel, about how they play and learn. From the novel visual effects to the corny (yet amazing) action scenes, it resists being “too grown up” (it even takes a swipe at the Snyder Cult). When it comes to “films based on toys” this is the antithesis of the Michael Bay Transformers movies that tried desperately to convey a toxic message about how you should stop playing with kids toys and play with big boys toys (*gestures at the curves of a car and compares them to the curves of a woman*).

Barbie is a fun and hilarious romp with more to say than the superficial reputation would have you think. Whether you agree with the meta message or not is one thing, you can simply enjoy the wacky irreverence but more importantly it provides a self-critique about Barbie, the toy, and its place in the world that is enlightening and poignant.

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