Barbie is having the perfect day. Yesterday was also perfect. Tomorrow will equally be a perfect day. As will the next one, the next one, and the next one, ad infinitum! Yay! Thus as Oppenheimer invokes the myth of Prometheus, Barbie invokes Sisyphus on the Gold Coast.
In Greta Gerwig’s pink-stravagant fantasy comedy, all the Barbies and Kens living in Barbieland are content with repeating the same type of day over and over again. That’s because they believe their mere existence solved all the inequality issues in the real world. They’re diverse, they’re powerful, and they’re happy.
That is, until one Barbie starts feeling differently, and is urged to visit the real world before her depressed mindset turns her into a Weird Barbie forever.
Little Women, Big Dolls
It almost goes without saying that Margot Robbie nails her role as Stereotypical Barbie, the Barbie everyone thinks of when they tell you to think of Barbie. Superbly cast, she plays both a believable plastic doll, perfectly dressed and made-up for her daily strolls in Barbieland, and an uncanny valley humanoid who has discovered death for the very first time.
As Barbara goes on her journey of self-discovery, Gerwig proves once again that she understands the modern woman like no other – and her work here is as undoubtedly feminist as Ladybird (2017) and Little Women (2019). In fact there is a monologue around the middle point – and I won’t spoil who performs it or what exactly it is about – that is a perfect accompaniment to Saoirse Ronan’s monologue in Little Women.
It is the kind of feminism that spurs conversation about how tough it is to be a woman – or just not a cis-man – in the world, without asking women to reject culturally feminine things like wearing pink and frills. Barbie says we can have both, and while its politics aren’t super deep, it’s more than enough for its target audience of teens and children to start thinking critically about gender norms.
Tonally and aesthetically, Barbie is a slapstick parody and sincere thesis on humanity rolled into one film. It’s self-aware pastiche of 1950s technicolour musicals and modern girl-boss pink-feminism flicks like Legally Blonde, with the unmistakably intellectual dialogue that Gerwig and partner Noah Baumbach are so known for.
The real-life (that is, not CGI) sets are lovingly crafted and perfectly convey a feeling of genuine falseness – Barbie’s Dreamhouse is, after all, just that: a dream. Gerwig herself called it authentic artificiality, a genuine commitment to artifice that believes in itself. Barbie drives, tandem cycles, snow-sleds, camper-vans, rocket ships and rollerblades her way from her world into ours: the palmtree-dotted Los Angeles with its sunny beaches, souvenir shops and highrise buildings. A dreamhouse within a dreamhouse.
The result of this craftsmanship – the set, the costumes, the camerawork, the choreography, the colour grading – is a gorgeous meal of pop culture goodness, which will no-doubt spawn many imitators in years to come.
And we can’t talk about authentic artificiality without mentioning Ryan Gosling as Ken. Gosling has long been underappreciated as a comedic actor, but as someone who has been a fan since Lars and the Real Girl (the 2007 film where he falls in love with a sex doll), I found his gleeful turn as Ken completely satisfying. Here he is in full goof mode, affecting alien-like mannerisms and sincere, deadpan stupidity that it’s hard to avoid proclamations of show-stealing. His special solo song in the final act is one for the ages.
In answer to the question ‘is it possible to make a film for a company while adequately critiquing said company?’, I believe Barbie answers that with a ‘yes’ – but, if you’re expecting a complete evisceration of late-stage capitalism, you definitely came to the wrong show. You will not find what you are seeking here.
If instead you seek a laugh-out-loud, whip-smart treatise on modern feminism, depression, anxiety, and mortality, then you’ll have your cup filled.
Yes, it is a Mattel movie, but it will not be remembered as such. And as far as creative freedom goes, Gerwig exercises as much power as she can yield in such a position. The Mattel execs present in the film (led by Will Ferrel) are bumbling and incompetent, and ultimately have no impact on Barbie’s story. If you come away from this film thinking ‘Oh Mattel are so great, let me give them more money immediately, yum yum capitalism so good’ then uh, maybe that’s a you problem?
Recently, I wrote an article called Barbie and The Naked Minotaur, which expressed both hope and hesitation for the Barbie movie via wondering if it could ever really capture the feral innovation with which little kids play with dolls. And boy, did it. I won’t say anymore though – the best way to enjoy this film is to let yourself be surprised.
Which brings me to the one tiny regret I have, which is watching every trailer and promo video available before seeing Barbie. All of them were great at building the hype, but it meant that most of the films’ early gags were given away and thus didn’t have as much of an impact as they could have.
Oppenheimer and Barbie accidentally becoming the double bill of the year, thanks to a shared release date (and hundreds of memes), has actually worked out pretty well. Both are meditations on life and death, and what it means to create and be created. Though, they are so tonally and aesthetically different we may not have considered their similarities otherwise.
I went into the cinema expecting to have a good time and giggle at some doll-based jokes. I did not expect to have a full existential crisis, sob my eyes out, and then burst into thunderous applause when the credits ran.
Like my sister said at the beginning of the film: ‘we’re all dying inside, but sometimes we just wanna dress in pink and get on with life’.
Barbie is out in cinemas now.