Director: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated: PG-13 (For suggestive references and brief language)
Considering how many action figures have been turned into feature films in the last two decades, it seems strange that a theatrical adaptation of the Barbie doll took so long to get off the ground. Announced several years ago by Mattel as something that would "reintroduce Barbie to a new generation," the project has been stuck in development hell as creatives and executives spared over exactly what the movie was going to be about. At one point Amy Schumer and Diablo Cody were attached to the project before parting ways with Mattel due to the fact that their version of the film was apparently "bad for the brand."
Eventually, Greta Gerwig was brought on to direct and has delivered "Barbie," a movie that surprises in so many ways I suspect the true meaning of the film may actually be debated for years to come. Not since "The LEGO Movie" has a movie that was put into production to sell toys...excuse me, "reintroduce the brand to a new generation"...been so wildly entertaining, so visually expressive, that viewers are literally transported into another world. In fact, it is appropriate that "Barbie" was greenlit as part of a broader strategy to reinvigorate the toy brand, as when the film starts one can not help but feel like the world is nothing but a giant toy set.
The cars run without engines, the water in the ocean is plastic, and none of the houses have stairs because when have you ever seen a kid play with Barbie and use the stairs? The colors of Barbieland (especially pink) pop in the most visually pleasing ways, and it's clear that the filmmakers are enjoying turning their childhood imagination into a living, breathing world! Living in this world are multiple variations of Barbie, various incarnations of Ken, and Allen (Ken's best friend who has no variation). All the Barbies and Ken live their lives, have the roles they are assigned to, and don't think much about how the world works on the outside.
This changes when Margot Robbie's Barbie starts having thoughts of death, and finds that she is no longer able to walk on her toes. The other Barbies inform her that the person who plays with her may be having problems in "The Real World," and it would be best if she finds her player and cheers her up. This results in Barbie and one of the Kens (Ryan Gosling) going to the real world and finding Barbie's player. In the real world, Barbie is dismayed to find that she might not be the feminine inspiration she thought she was and wants little more than to return to Barbieland as soon as possible. On the other hand, Ken loves that men are treated as equals (if not better) and decides to bring 'the patriarchy' to Barbieland.
In many ways, Ken is right to feel slighted: his only source of self-worth is being acknowledged by Barbie (and there is some question on whether or not the Ken's are homeless or not, as Barbie admits she has no idea where they even sleep at night). Strangely, "Barbie" isn't even about Barbie so much as it is about Ken. While Barbie does go through a character arc of sorts, it is Ken who has spent his life being belittled, marginalized, and shunned his whole life, and Ryan Gosling conveys this in a brilliant performance that stands out in all the right ways. When a woman asks him for the time, it gives him a sense of self-worth that he has never had before. The fact that the simple act of being asked what time it is gives him a sense of validation speaks volumes to the absurdity of his worth in Barbieland.
He even has a musical number lamenting "I'm just Ken, everywhere else I'd be a ten," and we as the audience are much more interested in his journey to be acknowledged as opposed to Barbie's desire for things to go back to the way things were before she started having thoughts of death. Yet her journey does lead her to meet a mother and a daughter, who both have conflicting views about how the world treats women (and how women even treat each other at times). Barbie is even given a lesson in how deeply mothers love for their daughters goes, when an elderly lady tells her "mothers stand still so that daughters can see how far they've come."
Note to Parents: Though I suspect a lot of kids will enjoy the movie, there are enough adult jokes that the film rightfully earns its PG-13 rating. As long as you are prepared to explain what a gynecologist is, most of the jokes will likely fly over their heads though, which is why its easy to recommend to families despite this fact.