REVIEW: Barbie (2023, dir. Greta Gerwig)

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 114 mins

UK Distributor: Warner Bros Pictures

WHO’S IN BARBIE?

Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Hari Nef, Alexandra Shipp, Emma Mackey, Sharon Rooney, Dua Lipa, Nicole Coughlan, Ana Cruz Kayne, Ritu Arya, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Simu Liu, Scott Evans, Ncuti Gatwa, John Cena, America Ferrera, Will Ferrell, Connor Swindells, Michael Cera, Jamie Demetriou, Emerald Fennell, Rhea Perlman, Ariana Greenblatt, Marisa Abela, Helen Mirren

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Greta Gerwig (director, writer), Noah Baumbach (writer), Tom Ackerley, Robbie Brenner, David Heyman and Margot Robbie (producers), Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt (composers), Rodrigo Prieto (cinematographer), Nick Houy (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Barbie (Robbie) and Ken (Gosling) head to the real world…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON BARBIE?

There is no denying it: Barbie is an icon. Just like Mickey Mouse, Superman, Marilyn Monroe and other pop culture legends before her, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the deepest, darkest corner of the planet who doesn’t know the name Barbie, or the many pink accessories that the Mattel doll comes with (from her convertible car to her enormous Dreamhouse to her ever-loyal boyfriend Ken). Like it or not, Barbie has become an integral part of our lives, enough to solidify her status as a true icon.

However, it’s taken her live-action feature debut to actually address, after more than sixty years, who Barbie actually is. We certainly identify her from her various clothes and accessories, and even her various jobs whether it’s a doctor or an astronaut, but there appears to be no correct answer as to what kind of personality she has, what her innermost thoughts are, or even how her plastic mind operates. The only person who can provide a satisfying answer, while still crafting a hugely enjoyable film around it, is director and co-writer Greta Gerwig, who in a very subversive and intelligent manner dissects everything we know about Barbie to find something much deeper about the current state of societal gender roles than anyone could ever have realised.

Gerwig’s film, which she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach, primarily takes place in Barbieland, a pink plastic paradise where Barbies of all types run everything and live perfect lives, while their loyal Kens simply stand around without contributing much to their society. The focus, though, is on “Stereotypical Barbie” (Margot Robbie), who looks and acts like the most perfect Barbie to ever exist – until she suddenly has some rather morose thoughts about death, which causes a wave of imperfections such as waking up with bad breath, developing cellulite on her thigh, and – perhaps most horrifyingly of all – her impossibly high-heeled feet suddenly becoming flat. Upon the advice of “Weird Barbie” (Kate McKinnon), the result of being played with too roughly by her child, she sets out to the real world in order to find her owner and discover the source of her newfound existentialism. Joined by her eternally lovestruck Ken (Ryan Gosling), Barbie makes it to Los Angeles where she is shocked to find that the real world is nowhere near as bright and optimistic as her own, especially with how men and women are separately treated.

From that alone, you’ll probably have already sussed that a large focus of the movie is going to be on how this Barbie and her Ken react to gender inequality in both worlds, and that’s more or less what much of Gerwig and Baumbach’s script rests upon. However, while it certainly runs the risk of being too heavy-handed in parts, with messages that are by no means subtle or even that revolutionary, Barbie is a film that still manages to have a lot of fun with satirising these societal topics, running with ideas that are daring but also genuinely funny. Margot Robbie’s Barbie, for instance, spends much of her time in the real world being shocked to find women are nowhere near as powerful as they are in Barbieland, with even the board of executives at Mattel, the very company that created her, are all men, with Will Ferrell’s CEO lording over them. Meanwhile, a major plot strand sees Ryan Gosling’s Ken, who along with all the other Kens – and Michael Cera’s Allan – has spent his life being nothing but mere eye candy for the Barbies, becoming fascinated by the patriarchal system of the real world, which he naively brings back to Barbieland with catastrophic results. There is something deeply funny about witnessing Kens embrace toxic masculinity, with Gosling’s iteration effectively being their universe’s Jordan Peterson, and there is something equally upsetting about seeing Barbie be confronted with the stark reality for her gender, but Gerwig and Baumbach level both of them out with heartfelt commentary that, while again being somewhat on-the-nose, gets the point across splendidly.

On top of co-writing a very well thought-out and often extremely hilarious script (one meta piece of narration by Helen Mirren was a particular hit with the audience in my screening, to where they were still laughing from it minutes later), Gerwig also utilises her natural filmmaking abilities to create a fascinatingly crafted world. Barbieland is beaming with bright colours and plastic sets, to where even the waves on the beach are noticeably fake, but part of the charm lies in its blatant soundstage setting, like you’re watching a classic Technicolour musical from the 1960s that happens to have extra pink in every single corner imaginable. Amusingly, the scenes set in the real world also operate in a heightened reality where the mere notion of living dolls coming through to Venice Beach on luminescent rollerblades via a magical portal hardly phases anyone. It gives off a similar vibe to something like Zoolander or Anchorman (both, funnily enough, also starring Will Ferrell), where it embraces the anything-goes attitude that comes with the surrealist comedy of this magical realist universe. It’s all part of Gerwig’s masterplan to create a pair of worlds that are not only fun and silly in equal measure, but also at times alarmingly accurate about where we currently are as an inclusive society for all genders, while also being impeccably shot and designed.

The lingering question, though, still remains: who is Barbie? The film acknowledges many things about the doll’s spotty history and her uneven place in popular culture, including some obscure products that were discontinued for various reasons, and how she has simultaneously furthered women in society and also set them back dozens of years. It also makes numerous references to several famous Barbie accessories like certain dresses and fold-out playsets, which similarly have left their mark on the toy world. However, what Gerwig does here is look past all of that and actually pay attention to the inanimate plastic doll it’s all being placed upon; using her imagination as several children (and some adults) have done before her, she envisions Barbie as a being with agency, someone who’s bright and cheerful and funny, and who isn’t afraid to show how vulnerable she is but also how tough and determined she can be, especially in the most impossible of situations.

In doing so, Gerwig reveals that Barbie is what she has been all along: a person, making their own way in the world, defying the odds by doing everything they were told couldn’t be done, and refusing to compromise who they are in order to win favour from anyone else. It’s why Barbie continues to be iconic sixty years on, and also what a perfectly-cast Margot Robbie brings out in her astounding lead performance (with excellent support from a hilarious Ryan Gosling), both of which in turn provide Gerwig with the answer she’s been tasked with providing: Barbie is all of us, packaged in a cardboard box and sold to us in their millions. She may be an inanimate plastic doll, but Greta Gerwig has just shown the world that there’s far more to Barbie than just her accessories.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Barbie is a highly intelligent and often very funny dissection of the iconic doll and her contribution to both popular culture and general society, which Greta Gerwig handles with such care and joy that makes it hard to resist playing with.

Barbie is now showing in cinemas nationwide

Click here to find showtimes near you!

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