Barbie review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
In the 1980s, Barbie’s first movie debuted on home video. It was an awful animated musical that tried and failed to push a message of world peace amid a sloppy and unfocused script. Even with the slew of direct-to-video movies that followed, the bar was still pretty low for Barbie’s first live-action theatrical film. And yet director Greta Gerwig knocks it out of the park with a film that is as brilliant in its tapping of feminism as it boasts the toys' colorful allure.
Rather than play it safe as a glorified toy commercial with a brainless fish-out-of-water adventure, Gerwig’s film touches more on Barbie’s cultural influence and how the imagination clashes with reality. The central Barbie (Margot Robbie) resides in the fantastical Barbie Land, where everything seems perfect. She resides amid the many Barbies of various professions, and the various Kens (Ryan Gosling as the main Ken) exist to gain their attention. With no issues of dwindling resources, political problems, or money issues, Barbie Land is the perfect world of music, color, fun, and feminism. Or is it?
Barbie’s perfect life is thrown off when she starts thinking about death. When contemplating her experience, strange things start happening, including her feet going from constantly in a state of heels to flat. With such developments being read as a sickness within her community, she must venture into reality to find answers. The problem is that Barbie has been so divorced from reality that she assumes her iconography as a doll has changed the world for the better. She’s in for a rude awakening when she arrives to discover that sexism and patriarchy are very much alive.
Although the Barbie movie does have the pastel-flavored zaniness it’s been advertised for boasting, it might surprise viewers how much teeth this film has. The humor present goes beyond the obvious jokes about Barbie and Ken don’t have genitals (although they do transform that joke into the perfect punchline). The central focus of challenging gender norms and questioning feminism versus patriarchy is more than just winking nods. It’s more like gut-punches that range from being absolutely hilarious and caught-off-guard tearful. Consider how Barbie first enters the real world. There are the expected hi-jinks of getting used to cat-calling and a misunderstanding of the capitalist structure. But then she takes a breather to adjust to the human world with all its joys and pains, turning to an elder and remarking how beautiful she is. Not exactly a scene I expected from a film promoted with such bombacity.
This film never slows down too much to explain its logistics. The border between Barbie Land and reality is a hazy one, where even scenes in the LA-based offices of Mattel look like a location of weird whimsy. It’s not important how the company conceived of Barbie Land. What’s more important is how the CEO (Will Ferrell) is a bumbling man stumbling over himself in an attempt to be an ally and how the original creator of Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman) acts more like a God trying to let her creation flourish on her own. The very thesis of the film comes expertly delivered by America Ferrara, ranting on the anxiety that comes with being a human woman that Barbie has yet to fully embrace.
The Barbie movie is way more than just a toy commercial. It’s every bit the film that one might expect from Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach, tapping into the nature of women and the comical observations on existentialism. The fact that the film can be all this and still have fun with references to the toys, staging the plastic oddness of Barbie Land, and having an intoxicating musical dance-off of Kens is an unexpected joy. Few films released in the summer ever feel this bold and beautiful, having just as much thought placed into the script as the Dream House sets.