The lead-up to Barbie’s release has seen a marketing blitz akin to being hit repeatedly over the head with a very pink, very corporate shovel. With Mattel and Warner Bros. livery on full display, the none-more-peppy trailers suggest that the movie will be plastic, ironic, and FUN (whether you like it not, Skipper). And though the involvement of filmmaker Greta Gerwig has indicated some anarchy at play, it’s been hard to get around the creeping sense of cash-in cynicism.
So, it’s a relief to discover that the Lady Bird/Little Women director’s tale of a dress-up doll is profound, silly, moving, smart, existential and, to use Ken’s word, SUBLIME! (shout this (K)energetically, please).
Echoing The Lego Movie, Gerwig (co-writing with partner Noah Baumbach) views a mass-produced toy with an ironic but affectionate eye. There are keen takes on bemusing limited editions (Earring Magic Ken, Pregnant Midge, Tanner the pooping dog), the oversimplification of arguments for and against Barbie’s female representation, and Ken’s literal and figurative eunuch status. The script also dispenses snarky observations about the patriarchy by way of Helen Mirren’s arch voiceover. So far, so trailer.
The set-up sees Barbie (Margot Robbie) travelling from her Dreamhouse to the real world in a bid to stop her perfect, unquestioning existence from fracturing. Lovesick Ken (Ryan Gosling) tags along for the ride. Once through the looking glass, both playthings discover a horrifying reversal of Barbieland in our realm: a universe where men rule (especially, as Ken notes, those on horses) and female empowerment can literally be boxed with ‘sparkles’. Playing like an overextended SNL sketch, this section of the film is a tad too slippery to get a handle on. The jokes are fun but not knockout, the narrative seemingly predictable.
But then Gerwig turns the screw. With the arrival of America Ferrera’s harassed mum Gloria, Barbie becomes a feminist howl, a sophisticated satire and, ultimately, an emotional one-two that hits all genders where it hurts with its themes: the loss of childhood, the stretching of the gossamer thread between mothers and children, the messy meaning of being human. A montage cut to Billie Eilish’s breathy vocals demands tears and a post-viewing call to a parent.
As a meta, feminist Pinocchio, Barbie is excellent when verbalising the battles of the sexes (Gloria’s rageful monologue recounting all the ways that women can fail is excruciatingly sharp), engaging with Toy Story-esque rules (Kate McKinnon’s Weird Barbie who’s been played with too hard; the Kens going to beach battle), and exploring ideas of connection, community, and self-worth.
It also shines whenever Gosling is on screen. Essentially an incel with insane abs and a Rocky fixation, his Ken gets most of the best gags, certainly the best song, and an emotional arc as acute as Barbie’s. It almost feels contrary to enjoy his performance this much in a film designed to celebrate women. But then Gerwig isn’t about to disenfranchise her luminous, agile star. Come the third reel, she puts her scattered cinematic toys back into the Dreamhouse - via ghosts, cameos, film references, and boy-band choreography - for a universal, empowering finale that salutes the potency of being an individual.
Barbie is in UK and US cinemas from July 21.