Review: Eye-popping ‘Barbie’ stuffed with laughs, surprisingly deft discourse

18 July 2023

My initial plan was to write a joint review of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” a pair of highly unlikely summer blockbusters that — in an even more unlikely move — have become joined at the hip thanks to a social media-driven campaign dubbed “Barbenheimer.”

At first glance, the two films couldn’t be more dissimilar. “Barbie” is based on a toy enjoyed primarily by preteen girls, while “Oppenheimer” is a three-hour biographical thriller about the guy who helped develop nuclear weapons. What would otherwise be a textbook example of counterprogramming turned into a celebration of the sheer joy of moviegoing, with large swaths of would-be viewers publicly making plans to see both films over the weekend. AMC Theatres, among other chains, is even offering the two films as a double feature and reports more than 40,000 people have purchased tickets.

Dig a bit deeper, though, and the movies have more in common than one might guess. They’re both from quirky, visionary directors whose name alone can sell tickets. “Barbie” helmer Greta Gerwig — who cowrote the film with her partner Noah Baumbach, a far less problematic Woody Allen type whose 1995 debut “Kicking and Screaming” is a low-key masterpiece — has long since established herself as an adored indie actor, writer and director whose first two films, “Lady Bird” and “Little Women,” earned best picture Oscar nominations. Christopher Nolan, meanwhile, is known for his lengthy, high-minded blockbusters, from his “Dark Knight” trilogy to the dystopian sci-fi meditation “Interstellar.”

But after watching an early screening of “Barbie,” I left the theater with a head full of thoughts, first and foremost that this is a film totally and fully deserving to stand on its own merits. It’s wonderful that, sight unseen, audiences have already decided both films are worth the attention and it turns out they were totally correct.

Margot Robbie in “Barbie.” (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Explaining the outlandish premise may be as futile as it is to describe the plot of your typical comic book or sci-fi blockbuster, but here I go. Barbie Land stands as another dimension where the candy-colored toys continually live their best lives. Gerwig imagines the world as one of a series of plastic landscapes and full-size Barbie Dream Houses. Margot Robbie stars as Stereotypical Barbie — as in the blond-haired, blue-eyed doll one thinks of when one hears the word “Barbie” — who coexists with the numerous other iterations of the character, as well as spin-offs like Skipper, Midge and Christie.

In Barbie Land, women not only run but totally rule everything, up to and including the presidency and Supreme Court, and they are convinced that’s also the case over in the real world. Men are represented by Ken — the main Ken is brilliantly portrayed by Ryan Gosling — who serve as mere friends to Barbies. Gerwig makes it quite clear early on that like the actual dolls, none of the residents of Barbie Land have genitals and they are incapable of having intercourse.

The trailer for “Barbie”:

(It’s worth noting that some far-right types have criticized the film in recent weeks. The two big complaints are that it’s supposedly filled with pro-Chinese propaganda and that it will turn your kids trans. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has claimed a map in the movie affirms China’s sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, a thorny point of contention in the region. Warner Bros. has responded by saying it was “a whimsical, child-like drawing … not intended to make any type of statement.” Whatever the case, the map’s actual screen time is fleeting and I find it unbelievable anyone watching would come to that conclusion without prior prompting. As for the latter, “Barbie” makes many, many winks and nods to the LGBTQ community, including casting trans woman Hari Nef as Dr. Barbie. But ultimately it’s a film that’s very much about examining, critiquing and reconsidering the traditional roles of women and men in society.)

In a plot device used to get the story moving but then almost entirely ignored, the denizens of Barbie Land also act as avatars for actual Barbie dolls in the real world. After an eye-popping opening sequence stuffed with song and dance, Robbie’s Barbie suddenly finds herself contemplating her own mortality, a concept otherwise unthinkable in the nonstop glee-filled party that is Barbie Land.

Barbie soon learns that, somehow, she has taken on the angst of the owner of her real-life doll and the only cure is to travel to the real world, find that owner and … well, what she’s supposed to do then is kind of unclear, a point Gerwig confirms with one of the numerous meta gags tucked into the storyline. The film follows Barbie and Ken as they travel back and forth between the two worlds and all the chaos that ensues.

Ryan Gosling, left, and Margot Robbie in “Barbie.” (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Remarkably, Mattel — Barbie’s parent company, which has plans to turn an array of its toys into tentpole blockbusters — serves as the villain of the piece. I never imagined that Gerwig would so openly blast Mattel for selling a girl power utopia that’s actually run by power-hungry, greedy men. On top of that, Gerwig delivers a complete story that doesn’t lend itself to becoming a franchise. There is a potential path for a sequel, but if followed logically, it would be an entirely different sort of film that looked and felt nothing like “Barbie.”

Who is the audience for this? Young girls who actually play with Barbies certainly will have much to enjoy here, even if a lot of it goes over their heads and they get antsy in the latter half of the film. Barbie fans — no, Barbie historians — get an amazing amount of service here via the continuous nods to arcane corners of the doll’s legacy. It helps the rest of us to stick around for the credits, which give context to characters like Allan (drolly portrayed by Michael Cera), Ken’s buddy who happens to fit into Ken’s clothing.

To be sure, “Barbie” has its faults. A big one is Will Ferrell, who lazily plays Mattel’s CEO as yet another in a long line of one-note Will Ferrell Yells Every Line Into The Camera characters. Fellow “Saturday Night Live” vet Kate McKinnon gets a few great laughs as the more developed character Weird Barbie, but she ultimately spends most of her time mugging as shamelessly as Ferrell.

But in the end, “Barbie” is well worth seeing with appeal to a wide audience. It starts as a broad, often hilarious comedy, and develops into a thoughtful and even nuanced take on the impossibility of living up to the standards imposed on women in modern society.


Directed by: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Rhea Perlman and Will Ferrell
Rated: PG-13 for suggestive references and brief language
Should you go? “Barbie” goes far deeper than you’d think. 3.5 stars

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