You’d be forgiven for feeling slightly bemused as the opening of Barbie unfurls. Commanding as Helen Mirron’s satirical narration is, it explains little. The scene is abstract, comical and epic in equal measure. Gretta Gerwig promises much within the first minute and it’s safe to say the confidence and competence with which Barbie begins, sustains throughout.
Unlike the doll’s target audience back in 1959, this is by no means a ‘kid’s movie’. Not to say kids can’t enjoy it and have a fun time at the cinema, there’s plenty in there for them, but Gerwig generally aims her thematic crosshairs a little higher here, sending some of the more subversive mechanics over the heads of the younger audience. Equally, this isn’t a film made for a predominantly female crowd. Somehow, it transcends the idea of a ‘target demographic’. Anyone and everyone can go see this and come away with something. Including an ever-more-fragile sense of masculinity for the more easily triggered corners of the male crowd. The swath of men on social media railing against the movie and its ideologies, dubbing the movie ‘an attack on men’ along with many more, equally absurd, takes comes as no surprise. I’m sure Gerwig was expecting as much and you have to laugh at the delightful irony of men only noticing the injustice of the patriarchy when it’s reversed. Luckily, the vocal minority are just that, a minority. The Box Office already speaks to the reach of Barbie’s plastic fingers and the hearts won over by this colour-soaked caper.
As the trailer suggests, you shouldn’t be expecting just a paint-by-numbers comedy going into this. It’s much more than that and tackles ideas far more complex and uncomfortable than a Barbie movie has any right to. And therein lies its genius. With a checkered history (to say the least) and a key culprit in the insidious proliferation of unrealistic and unhealthy beauty standards, the Barbie brand has a lot to answer for. A lesser filmmaker would run a mile from such problematic associations. But Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach take the more unsavoury aspects of the world’s most famous doll and turn them in on themselves, devising a story that exposes the core of what is wrong with Barbie and the wider-world, while keeping Margot Robbie’s ‘Stereotypical Barbie’ a relatable, complex and flawed lead character. Quite the balancing act, executed superbly.
The conflict at the heart of Barbie’s journey is one of existentialism, creating a razor-sharp but never jarring juxtaposition with the pastels and glamour of Barbie Land, where a significant chunk of the movie takes place, far removed from thoughts of life and death. A world that also functions as an inverse mirror of the real world. In this matriarchal reality, the male occupants (all named Ken) are simultaneously a satirical reflection of the treatment of women in Hollywood (and society at large), a commentary on incel culture and a hard-hitting presentation of how men suffer under the patriarchy. Despite what short-sited reviewers may say, the men in this film are not side-lined or used as scenery. In fact, the male experience under the patriarchy is explored and deconstructed just as much as the female. Driven by her increasingly alarming thoughts of death, Barbie (accompanied by an infatuated, desperate-to-please Ken) ventures into the real world to make sense of this. It’s in this reality where the real point of the film begins to take hold and you can forgive it for being a little heavy-handed at times. Enough subtlety and nuance is woven into the script elsewhere (a particular boardwalk sequence is a highlight) that when it does feel a little blunt, or the shots seem cheap, it’s only because the film is having to work extremely hard to retain universal appeal to an impossibly diverse audience. All of this while conveying a deeply relevant and poignant feminist message to viewers of all ages. Like I said, balancing act.
One of the film’s many strengths is in its extensive cast of powerhouse performers. Robbie and Gosling taking centre stage as Barbie and Ken is a master stroke. They both turn their hands to a nauseating cocktail of tones effortlessly and even when their morally dubious traits take over, they are still irresistibly likeable company. The bench of supporting characters is not only deep but impeccably cast throughout. Will Farrell’s hapless CEO, Kate MCKinnon’s ‘Weird Barbie’ and Michael Cera perfectly embodying the awkward, short-lived sidekick Allen are the standouts for me but there are no weak links and it goes to show how smart casting can make or break a film. Gerwig draws out a subtly robotic performance from the inhabitants of Barbie Land, casting an eerie haze over their interactions. These quietly mechanical performances, coupled with award-worthy production design that flirts with intentional tackiness, produces an other-worldly concoction that is not only stunningly beautiful but strangely alluring and once it pulls you in, you’re trapped in its pink, plastic ruse until the credits roll.
Finally, it’s appropriate to address the ‘Barbenheimer’ shaped elephant in the room. A cunningly crafted and perfectly executed marketing strategy or a petty retaliation by Warner Bros.? Who knows. Either way, the Barbenheimer hype is real and I haven’t seen screenings this packed since pre-pandemic which was a joy to see, especially considering the current stalemate in the US over fair pay for writers and actors. Deliberate or not, the situation has yanked both Barbie and Oppenheimer into the zeitgeist and I don’t think it’s too bold to suggest it has provided a reach that would have not been possible through marketing alone. Wait a second… has Barbieheimer saved cinema?
Ruling – The savage commentary on the patriarchy is not always a subtle one and there were times I found myself longing for something a little more nuanced. There are glimmers of more refined metaphor and implication over explication, a few more of which I look forward to spotting on a rewatch. But Barbie continues to stand out beyond its thematic heart. The sets, costuming and production design is some of the best I’ve ever seen and I’d expect to see some nods come award season.