‘Barbie’ is colorful, funny and smart
Mattel makes many different Barbies to appeal to different audiences and different demographics.
There’s only one “Barbie” movie, but it has a similar task, trying to satisfy the different expectations of the moviegoers it wants to attract.
It’s almost shocking how well it accomplishes that.
Those looking for a cotton-candy-colored burst of their childhood come to life will revel in the look of the film, where the clothes, the dream houses and many modes of transportation all are inspired by the creations sold to kids (and adults) over 64 years.
It’s a movie jam-packed with visual gags and references, many of which probably sailed right past this father whose primary experience with the dolls was stepping on their many, many tiny accessories when they were ever-present in our home more than 20 years ago.
For those looking for something silly and fun, the screenplay by director Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach has plenty of laughs, both sly, pointed barbs and juvenile bits (such as the Kens challenging each other to a “Beach Off”) that will appeal to viewers’ inner 12-year-olds.
Barbie also is an icon and a flashpoint, a toy that has inspired dissertations and debates about what it reflects about society’s views on gender and whether it enforced those stereotypes or subverted them.
Gerwig doesn’t shy away from that discussion either, and serving it in such a sweet confection makes it more likely to be heard.
The movie opens in Barbieland, a place where the Barbies in all shapes and hues live in dream houses and hold all of the important jobs, whether they’re construction workers, Supreme Court justices (all nine of them) or the president of the United States (Issa Rae).
The Kens essentially are just another accessory, ranking in importance somewhere below the Barbie camper. Their value is weighed solely by the attention the Barbies pay to them.
Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) lives a perfect life with perfect clothes and all-night dance parties with her friends, but anxiety and thoughts of death start piercing that perfection.
When her always on-pointe feet go flat and develop separated toes, it’s time to search for answers. She seeks out “Weird Barbie” (Kate McKinnon), a doll that had been “played with too hard” by her owner, who tells her that her turmoil is a reflection of what the child who has her is dealing with in the real world.
Barbie sets off for the real world … with an unexpected stowaway — Ken (Ryan Gosling), who hopes some alone time with Barbie will help her see him in a new light.
There are plenty of fish-out-of-water gags as the folks in 2023 southern California react to ’80s-era workout / in-line skating attire of Barbie and Ken, and as Barbie realizes the matriarchy of Barbieland didn’t quite take hold in the real world.
The merger of the two worlds causes ripples in both, forcing unexpected changes in Barbieland and causing panic among Mattel executives (an all-male board led by Will Ferrell).
The movie gets so much right. The costumes and production design recreates the Barbie universe, and the technical elements merge those components with the CGI-generated backgrounds. In a less showy way, “Barbie” appears as complex technically as any big-budget sci-fi blockbuster.
Even the music cues land. Songs written for the movie and performed by Lizzo and Dua Lipa stand out, and audience members never will hear Matchbox Twenty’s “Push” the same way again.
In a case of cruel irony, there are moments where Ken’s story is in danger of usurping the title character, but Gerwig and Robbie don’t let that happen.
Robbie imbues Barbie’s plastic perfection with a real humanness, and Gosling shifts seamlessly from pouty and lovelorn to douchey bro.
The cast is filled with fun characters and several cameos. Rhea Perlman plays an important character whose identity is worth waiting to discover, and Helen Mirren’s droll delivery is exquisite as the narrator (there’s an aside to the audience late in the movie that is hilariously self-aware).
America Ferrera, playing a woman Barbie meets in the real world, gets the best speech of the movie, talking about the contortions that women must perform to conform to the conflicting demands society has of them.
In a similar way, society has made the same demands about the doll that is the star of the film.
The plot thread message about the importance of voting and protecting the constitution to avoid slipping under control of the patriarchy feels especially timely in Ohio right now.
STARS: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Ariana Greenblatt, Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Simu Liu, Michael Cera, Will Ferrell, Rhea Perlman and the voice of Helen Mirren.
STORYLINE: Barbieland and the real world start to merge as Barbie starts to experience thoughts of death and anxiety.
DIRECTOR: Greta Gerwig
RATING: PG-13 for suggestive reference and brief language.