This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Come on Barbie, let’s go party! After an insane marketing campaign led by Mattel and Warner Bros. Discovery, the movie event of the summer is finally here with Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. Hitting theaters the same day as Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, movie lovers online have dubbed the double feature viewing as “Barbenheimer.” Whether you’re seeing one or both, it’s no question that this is the most exciting summer dual release we’ve had in years. Based on Mattel’s famous Barbie and Ken doll figures, this isn’t the first popular toy line that’s received a successful transition to the big screen, i.e. Transformers, The Lego Movie, and Trolls. Gerwig has already made a name for herself in the Indie space, from actress to writer-director, with Frances Ha, Lady Bird, and Little Women. Barbie is her first step into the big-budget Hollywood sphere, and she wholeheartedly perseveres in protecting her artistic vision.
Narrator Helen Mirren begins the film with “Barbie changed everything,” as little girls trade their baby dolls for Barbies in a homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey. We then meet the classic Barbie (Margot Robbie) in “Barbie Land,” this is where all the dolls live of course. We get to see what a typical day looks like for the Barbies, from beach visits to council meetings to hip dance parties, and every night ends with a girl’s sleepover.
Every Barbie has their own job: Issa Rae plays President Barbie, Emma Mackey is Physicist Barbie, Dua Lipa is Mermaid Barbie, Sharon Rooney is Lawyer Barbie, Alexandra Shipp is a celebrated author, Hari Nef is a doctor, Ritu Arya is a journalist, and Emerald Fennell is the all but forgotten Midge. There are a bunch of Kens, and one Allan (Michael Cera), in Barbie Land as well. Ryan Gosling is the main Ken and it’s clear early on that the Kens are just Ken. They don’t have jobs and don’t contribute much to Barbie Land besides being there to hang out with the Barbies. Gosling’s Ken merely hangs out at the beach all day trying to impress Robbie’s Barbie. He even has a rivalry with Simu Liu’s Ken, to which the other Kens played by Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ncuti Gatwa, and Scott Evans pick their own sides.
For those familiar with the Mattel dolls, there are a lot of fun nods in the design of Barbie Land thanks to production designer Sarah Greenwood (Anna Karenina, Sherlock Holmes). All the Barbies live in different versions of the Barbie Dream House, the primary color in this world is pink, the White House is even pink, Barbie drives around in a pink Corvette, and everything at the beach is plastic. Margot Robbie’s Barbie is seen getting ready by comically brushing her hair with a giant plastic brush. Additionally, costume designer Jacqueline Durran beautifully gives all the Barbies their own unique style while paying homage to some of Barbie’s most iconic outfits. There’s also a hilarious moment where they shed light on some of the most ridiculous discontinued Barbie concepts and outfits. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is self-aware in both its meta-humor and storytelling, but never in ways that are unearned.
Barbie makes the best out of its pop music too; songs by Lizzo, Billie Eilish, and Dua Lipa absolutely work here as they play into the dreamlike aesthetics of what it must be like to be a perfect Barbie doll. The film is a technical feat to be admired – from the lavish costumes to the magnificent sets all elegantly framed by legendary cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto – though it’s in that core theme of being the perfect “figure” that Gerwig’s script, co-written by filmmaker husband Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story, White Noise), brings out unprecedented waves of heart and emotion. All is well in Barbie Land until classic Barbie asks her fellow dolls, “Do you guys ever think about dying?”
Referred to as the “stereotypical” Barbie by her fellow dolls, Margot Robbie’s Barbie isn’t the type to feel existential dread or anything else really, but something is different. So, she takes a trip to visit Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) for advice – she’s the type of Barbie that got played around with too much and has marker streaks on her face. Weird Barbie tells classic Barbie that she must visit the real world to find and help the little girl who is actually playing with her so she can return back to normal. That’s simple enough until Gosling’s Ken decides he wants to tag along on the trip. It’s easy to get fully invested in Barbie Land with all of the gorgeous actors and colorful visuals, however, it’s in our less optimistic human world that Barbie finds a story truly worth telling.
When Barbie and Ken enter the real world, their initial reactions play out opposite to the 1998 film Pleasantville, wherein two ‘90s teens enter the picturesque world of a 1950s TV show. Barbie and Ken have no idea what consequences they’ll face by entering a reality that is unlike their perfect paradise. This is where Ryan Gosling truly shines. Up until this point, he’s only devoted to Barbie and not himself. When he discovers the patriarchy in the real world as opposed to all the women running Barbie Land, Ken goes on an unexpected yet surprisingly potent journey of self-discovery, which even includes a playful musical number that lets Gosling’s singing talents shine. Gosling delivers a new career highlight performance as Ken; the “Kenergy” is on full display from beginning to end. His Ken ultimately shows that men can be vulnerable without lessening their masculinity or self-value.
The marketing of the film has given nothing away on what part the humans in the real world play. All this to say, America Ferrera plays one of the story’s most important roles and is at its heart. Ferrera is who all of us would be if we met Barbie in real life. Obviously, though, this film would be nothing without Margot Robbie leading the Barbie charge. You would think it’s easy to fall into the blonde stereotype with a project like Barbie, but not once does Robbie fall into that with her portrayal or downplay the role. Robbie’s Barbie is curious, influential, and evolved. She never needs Ken, he needs her. She dives head-first into the harsh truths of reality, and what she takes away from it changes her world and ours for the better. In a career where it seems like she’s already given audiences so much, from playing Harley Quinn to Sharon Tate, Robbie proves that her very best is still to come.
As such, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is a real tear-jerker. The ingenious script is not only laugh-out-loud funny, but it also asks the important questions of who we are and what we have to offer this world. It serves as a great commentary on modern society and consumerism. There are surprising jabs at Mattel as a company and who’s in charge of making toys for girls. Will Ferrell stars as the CEO of Mattel and plays up the camp of being incompetent at his job, which further drives home the meta aspects of Barbie as humor that is naturally earned and built up across the progression of the film rather than something to recognize and point at for the sake of a quick and easy laugh. What could’ve been a very niche story turns out to be a universal one with a powerful emotional core that will take audiences by surprise.
Greta Gerwig has cemented herself as the voice of her generation with Barbie and at this point, it seems like there’s nothing she can’t do. With her next project reported to be a new Narnia adaptation for Netflix, she’s proved that her voice can thrive in studio filmmaking without being diluted. Barbie is the kind of stylish spectacle that sits with you long after the credits roll, conveying hard-hitting themes with a fun balance of nuance and meta-comedy that so many other films have tried and failed to do before. There will probably never be another IP-based blockbuster as thoughtful and satisfying as this for years to come. Robbie and Gosling can rest well and proudly put their feet up after this.