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Welcome to Barbieland, where not everything is perfect as it seems

Welcome to Barbieland, where not everything is perfect as it seems
Margot Robbie as Barbie (Image: Warner Brothers)

Perfect casting, a combination of well-considered production design and cinematography, plus a healthy serving of surprises, Barbie is what a midyear blockbuster should be. It’s subtle, and it eventually loses momentum, but it strikes an enjoyable balance between fun, heart and substance.

Even before you get to the contents of the movie itself, Greta Gerwig’s live-action Barbie is shaking things up.

When it comes to toys and nostalgia, the conversation has traditionally been male-dominated. Women may be collectors and crafters, but they are overshadowed by the zeal that men have for their favourite figures, propping up 40-year-old franchises like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. 

Women may feel that they aren’t allowed to talk with passion about something so “childish” and “inconsequential”. And yet, thanks to Barbie, it’s now easy to find a group of pink-clad ladies reminiscing over lunch about their unrealised tween fantasy of owning a Dreamhouse; the fate of their favourite dolls; and, for the younger crowd, which of the CGI-animated movies is best (Nutcracker, Rapunzel and The Princess and the Pauper in that order, apparently).

Much like the iconic doll that it centres on, Barbie, the movie, is a cultural phenomenon, subversive – but not too subversive – and full of pleasant surprises. 

Here’s a movie in the midyear blockbuster season that isn’t three hours long; has managed to keep at least half its story under wraps; and actually has something to say, with varying degrees of sharpness. It’s also been a while since the release of a quotable comedy hit that everyone can recognise, and Barbie looks to fill that void.

Barbie’s life seems perfect until the real world comes knocking at her Dreamhouse door. (Image: Warner Brothers)

If you do need a brief plot reminder for Barbie, it’s simple. Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) leads an idyllic existence with all the other Barbies in women-run Barbieland. Every day is perfect until our Barbie starts brooding over her mortality, which triggers her transformation from fantasy figure to someone more real, and decidedly not perfect. Suddenly Barbie is struggling with bad breath, burnt breakfast, cellulite and tears. 

Kate McKinnon’s Weird Barbie has the solution: Stereotypical Barbie must venture out into the real world and cheer up the person playing with her, as they’re projecting their despair onto their doll. Ken (Ryan Gosling), whose entire existence revolves around Barbie, tags along.

Taking a stab at systemic patriarchy

Barbie, the film, is far less of a fish-out-of-water tale than you might expect. If you think you know where it’s going, you probably don’t. The film routinely stabs at systemic patriarchy, and women’s catch-22 positioning in society, which leads to anxiety and a chronic lack of confidence. The other Barbies suffer none of this mental conflict, of course – they accept awards with a cheerful “I deserve this” – but you have America Ferrera’s real-world toy company employee who delivers a gut-punch of a monologue on the topic.

If you were braced for Barbie to be toothless Mattel propaganda, it really isn’t, even taking aim at the company’s male-dominated board. That said, Barbie isn’t subtle at all in delivering its observations. 

Issues are spear-tackled with dialogue alone. It gives the film a kind of welcome audacity, but also makes it very on the nose. Then again, sometimes it’s enough just to hear these things said out loud, with no room for ambiguity. 

More razor-edged commentary from Helen Mirren’s astute narrator would have been welcome.

The strongest take home from Barbie is that Oscar-nominated filmmaker Greta Gerwig (for Lady Bird and Little Women) was absolutely the right person to direct, and co-write, the film. Her reflection of the female experience is paired with a visual flair that makes every scene in Barbieland feel like a child at play.

Barbie’s production design is exceptional, with a plastic artifice to the dolls’ world, and costume design that reflects miniature outfits made to human scale with their colourfulness but clean simplicity. The film makes sure to reference some of the most famous accessories and doll models in Barbie-manufacturing history. 

Meanwhile, even when CGI is evidently in use, it’s secondary to the sense (thanks to the film’s striking cinematography choices) that what audiences are looking at has been constructed in reality – again a welcome change from so many blockbusters that are just a swirling dervish of pixels for 85% of their runtime (looking at you, Transformers).

Mammoth cast

Gerwig has also brought out the best in her mammoth ensemble cast, which includes the diverse likes of Issa Rae, Alexandra Shipp, Emma Mackey, Sharon Rooney, Hari Nef and Dua Lipa as Barbie variants; and Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir and Ncuti Gatwa as Kens. 

It’ll be impossible to look at a Barbie doll now and not think of Robbie, who is perfection in the role, while Gosling once again shows off his surprising comedic skills. The only real weak link is Will Ferrell, who is simply riffing on his previous roles and is too much of a loaded on-screen presence. On the flipside, Rhea Perlman as Barbie creator Ruth Handler is deeply affecting, and one of the film’s standouts.

Ken, meet Ken. (Image: Warner Brothers)

As for gripes with Barbie, the biggest is that its main character doesn’t hold the film’s focus. In the increasingly silly and overblown third act, our heroine slips to the sidelines as Ken’s story takes the spotlight. Even if Ken’s evolution in self-awareness mirrors Barbie’s own, it’s a disservice, after stressing women’s social inequality for so long, to give the film’s biggest musical numbers and action moments to the guys. 

This is especially when all the men in the movie, whether Kens or real-world figures are painted with the same comical brush. With the exception of Michael Cera’s outcast Allan (Ken’s forgotten best friend), they feud, they fight, they resist non-bro displays of affection, and they’re all kind of inept in comparison to the Barbies. 

A focus on the male characters undercuts the emotional authenticity that has been building to this point, although it also means the film, refreshingly, has no real villains.

Then again, it’s probably not Barbie’s exploration of societal gender issues that will stay with you after you leave the cinema. Rather, it’s the film’s poignant dive into the subject of perfection. Through Robbie’s moving performance we see how holding yourself to that impossible standard is not only immensely damaging to your sense of self-worth, but also cultivates a mindset that diminishes and “others” anyone with flaws. 

But let’s not get too heavy. Ultimately, Barbie delivers the most fun, with a serving of substance, you can have at the movies in a very long time. Fans, especially, will be tickled pink by this blockbuster done right. DM

This story was first published on Pfangirl.com

Barbie is available in cinemas.

 

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