4.5 out of 5 stars

When a Barbie doll movie was announced people were understandably sceptical, but in the talented hands of writer-director Greta Gerwig (Little Women), this cultural icon has been subverted and given a socially conscious 21st-century update.

Barbie opens with a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), showing little girls destroying their baby dolls and replacing them with a swimsuit-clad Barbie. We’re then introduced to the pastel pink haven that is ‘Barbieland’, where every day is perfect, nobody has a hair out of place and people don’t even need to use stairs to get into their car. In this fantasy world, plentiful and gorgeous Barbies can be anything they want, whether that’s running Congress, winning a Nobel prize, or being a mermaid. They all believe they’ve inspired the “real world” and that every little girl also has the same opportunities in their life.

Everyone is either a ‘Barbie’ or a ‘Ken’—with the exception of Ken’s buddy Allan (Michael Cera), or Midge (an awkward Emerald Fennell), a pregnant doll who was banned for being inappropriate for children. At the centre of this world is ‘Stereotypical Barbie’ (a pitch-perfect Margot Robbie), who knows she’s the iconic Barbie everyone thinks of. But we also meet ‘President Barbie’ (Issa Rae), ‘lawyer Barbie’ (Sharon Rooney), ‘Doctor Barbie’ (Hari Nef), ‘writer Barbie’ (Alexandra Shipp), ‘physicist Barbie’ (Emma Mackey) and ‘Mermaid Barbie’ (Dua Lipa). Everyone delivers witty and self-referential performances, even if there’s simply not enough time to indulge every side character.

Whilst the Barbies are changing the world, the Kens are on the beach with apparently less meaning in their lives. ‘Lead Ken’ (Ryan Gosling) exists only to be noticed by Robbie’s Barbie, so whenever she’d rather socialise with the other Barbies, he’s totally lost. Other Kens are played by Simu Liu (Shang-Shi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), Ncuti Gatwa (Sex Education), Scott Evans, Kingsley Ben-Adir (Secret Invasion), and mermaid John Cena (The Suicide Squad), who all go about their day vibing.

However, suddenly Robbie’s habitually happy Barbie finds herself haunted by thoughts of sadness and death, which ruins a good sleepover, before waking up with flat feet and cellulite. So she goes to see ‘Weird Barbie’ (Kate McKinnon) for answers, who explains that a wormhole has opened up between Barbieland and the real world. So our blonde heroine must get out of her existential crisis and travel to the real world, with Gosling’s himbo Ken joining her as they face some harsh realities: getting heckled and treated like objects, and in Ken’s case learning about the patriarchy and horses. And once Barbie meets teenage Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) and her mother Gloria (America Ferrera), she expects to be praised but instead realises Barbie isn’t a beloved feminist icon in the real world… she’s become a cultural hindrance to progressive women.

Considering this film is in partnership with toymakers Mattel (who will milk every toy in their line off the back of Barbie‘s box office success), the film isn’t afraid to mock the venerable brand’s frequent misfires. Will Ferrell even reprises his Lego Movie (2014) role, in essence, as the money-grabbing CEO of Mattel; a corporate monster who’d destroy any child’s dream in favour of a good business opportunity.

The screenplay, co-written by Gerwig with her husband Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story), offers a sharp depiction of modern feminism, even if it does feel lightweight. If anyone is expecting a deep exploration of gender and femininity, look elsewhere, but it’s a family-friendly film that’s immensely funny whilst also having a message about the plight of modern women.

Robbie (who also produces) and Gosling hold Barbie together, with performances perfectly straddling the line between meta-camp and sharp comedy. The scripts can sometimes be a lot when it’s exaggerating the vapidness of the Kens and the peppiness of the Barbies, but it never feels annoying. It’s hard to remember the last time a cast committed so completely to a whimsical movie like this.

Gosling is especially good in the supporting role of a lifetime as Ken, playing an exaggerated form of masculinity who doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. Michael Cera (Arrested Development) has a small yet memorable role as Allan, Ken’s awkward ‘buddy’ who lives to serve the Kens, representing every boy who never fits in with the others and would rather sit with the girls.

America Ferrera gives real soul to Gloria, the mum of a teenage girl who feels like she’s lost a part of herself. Whilst her daughter has outgrown the need for playing with Barbie dolls, Gloria still has that little girl inside of her. In a world where traditional boys’ toys are still an acceptable hobby for grown men (Lego, superheroes, action figures), Gloria makes an argument for women to embrace their childhood loves. Ferrera delivers one of the most poignant monologues in recent memory, breaking down how women can never be enough no matter how smart, thin, or pretty they are.

Through all the OTT dance scenes, costumes, and pastels, Barbie shows a lot of heart. It’s a film about people breaking free from society’s expectations only to discover they don’t know who they are without them.

Gerwig does the seemingly impossible in making a movie which feels true to the source material whilst also pleasing cinephiles and adults. This is truly a film that will appeal to the young and old alike; if you’re a Barbie super-fan or have always sneered at the idea of playing with dolls. There are references to cinematic masterpieces, adult-only inside jokes, and some fantastic pop culture gags. Gerwig has successfully produced a thoughtful, grown-up movie parading as a child’s wonderland.

Anyone who looks down their nose at Barbie’s message is clearly unaware of the world young women are growing up in today. And those who complain this film hates men are either being purposely obtuse or left too early. Gerwig’s Barbie isn’t trying to create a Feminist World Order, she’s merely using a well-known character to exaggerate society’s flaws. The message of this movie really is equality and regaining the balance of power.

Barbie holds up a warped mirror to modern life and playfully twists serious topics into a pastel melange. Sure, Barbie is a simplified depiction of feminism where women like to wear pink and also run the Senate, but this exaggeration is why the dolls are so appealing to little girls. Barbieland is a simple fantasy of what the world could be like, just with more dance choreography and beaches.


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Cast & Crew

director: Greta Gerwig.
writers: Greta Gerwig & Noah Baumbach (based on the Mattel toys).
starring: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrara, Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Rhea Perlman & Will Ferrell.