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Barbie

Updated: Sep 2, 2023

Greta Gerwig's feminist and magical realist take on the toy is fun and insightful



Greta Gerwig is living the director’s dream of flitting from vastly different projects and preventing viewers or studios from pinning her down. She first impressed viewers with her honest coming-of-age Lady Bird (2017), and then shifted to adapt a classical novel with Little Women (2019). Now she’s delivered a magical realist and feminist take on a controversial toy with Barbie (2023).


Barbie takes place in fantasy Barbieland, where the eponymous toy has different versions and variations living out their dream lives. You have the likes of President Barbie (Issa Rae), Scientist Barbie (Emma Mackey), and Writer Barbie (Alexandra Shipp), as well as their respective Kens, who have a much flatter identity. When Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) begins to have existential thoughts, however, she and Beach Ken (Ryan Gosling) must venture into the Real World to seek answers.


There have been multiple attempts to make a live-action Barbie movie before Gerwig brought a feminist and tongue-in-cheek spin that makes the “product movie” palatable to today’s socially aware viewers. Barbie largely succeeds at using this famous toy to comment on the role of women and femininity in society. Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay with husband Noah Baumbach, marinates the use of Barbie as a product and real-world gender dynamics to a hilarious and often profound way. There is a particularly daring development with the character of Ken that analyzed the role of patriarchal norms and the ease oblivious men have to simply exist, ignoring the gender disparities being fraught.


Gerwig brings about a magical realist tone to Barbie that helps it flit between the real world and the furiously pink Barbieland. As an example, the film opens with Helen Mirren narrating a recreation of the 2001: A Space Oddyssey (1968) scene where apes discover the monolith, only this time the apes are young girls with baby dolls, and the monolith is a Barbie doll. It is with this easy splicing of references and self-deprecation that Gerwig achieves a film that both keeps the toy owners of Mattel happy, while not seeming like an overlong commercial. Barbieland especially is where Gerwig seems to be having a blast utilizing this tone, with the production design bringing viewers into the pastel and plastic dreamworld that Barbie products evoke.


Gerwig has to balance staying true to her artistic self, while also pleasing a mainstream audience that Barbie’s IP clearly reaches out to. Gerwig is largely successful at this, providing the occasional cacophony of colors and cameos while also pondering on the validity of neo-feminist thought. That said, there is also a seeming penance to the Mattel overlords, where a side-plot involving a likeable and funny Mattel board seek to help Barbie. This has no impact on the plot, and not even the great Will Ferrell as the Mattel CEO is able to salvage much in such cringey scenes.


Barbie is helmed by Robbie in the title role. The Australian is forced to flip between the dreamy ideal version of Barbie and an existentially distraught one. It’s a rather thankless performance that will seem breezy to viewers, but whose genuine and dazzling charm and well of emotion are incredibly hard to pull off. Gosling as Ken is likewise solid in the role, diving fully into the comedic elements, though sometimes to a tiring degree. The acting and directing choices with Ken help deliver some of the biggest laughs, but you sense a lost opportunity for more reflection on the character towards the end as an exploration of masculinity is brought to a head.


In the end, Barbie is a successful product movie, with Gerwig infusing more dazzling fun and social commentary than it had any right to have. Thanks to a successful use of magical realism, some topnotch production design, and Robbie expertly handling the lead role, Barbie delivers a fun and insightful time.

8.1/10

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About Young Critic

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I've been writing on different version of this website since February of 2013. I originally founded the website in a film-buff phase in high school, but it has since continued through college and into my adult life. Young Critic may be getting older, but the love and passion for film is forever young. 

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