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‘Barbie’ May Be the Most Subversive Blockbuster of the 21st Century

It’s a long commercial for a legacy corporate brand and a pretty-in-pink f*ck you to the patriarchy. It is Barbie — hear it roar

Barbie review

Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s tough to sell a decades-old doll and actively make you question why you’d still buy a toy that comes with so much baggage. (Metaphorically speaking, of course — literal baggage sold separately.) The makers of Barbie know this. They know that you know that it’s an attempt by Mattel to turn their flagship blonde bombshell into a bona fide intellectual property, coming to a multiplex near you courtesy of Warner Bros. And they’re also well aware that the announcement that Greta Gerwig would be co-writing and directing this movie about everyone’s favorite tiny, leggy bearer of impossible beauty standards suddenly transformed it from “dual corporate cash-in” to “dual corporate cash-in with a very high probability of wit, irony, and someone quoting Betty Friedan and/or Rebecca Walker.”

Overnight, the enthusiasm from fans, film critics, and fans of film critics was overwhelming; it doubled once photos of Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, a.k.a. Barbie and Ken, rollerblading in matching radioactive-pink outfits leaked online. This would not be a crass attempt to shill toys. Well, OK, it still would be, because it’s a movie about Barbie. But the Lady Bird director wasn’t going to just toe the party line. She would have her own agenda here, smuggled under the cover of pastel-colored brand nostalgia. The fourth-wave-feminism call is coming from inside the Malibu Dreamhouse!

There was an inherent promise, in other words, that we would not simply get a two-hour mindless commercial. Barbie definitely makes good on that promise, which still doesn’t quite prepare you for what feels like the most subversive blockbuster of the 21st century to date. This is a saga of self-realization, filtered through both the spirit of free play and the sense that it’s not all fun and games in the real world — a doll’s story that continually drifts into the territory of A Doll’s House. Barbie is still a magnet for controversy about what the feminine ideal is, as well as a Proustian madeleine for multiple generations whose childhoods were shaped by dressing her up as a vision of what a grown woman might be. Gerwig wants to honor those memories while exploring those mixed messages. She also wants to make something in which the words “Proustian madeleine” are uttered with complete sincerity by said object. It’s a tall order for an 11.5-inch icon.

Every morning, Barbie (Robbie) wakes up in her beautiful, open-faced mansion, waves to the legion of other Barbies in their beautiful, open-faced Barbieland mansions, and greets the day with a smile. Early afternoons are reserved for listening to President Barbie (Issa Rae) make executive decisions, or watching a Barbie journalist win a Barbie Pulitzer, or cheering a Barbie Supreme Court that lays down the law for the good of all Barbiekind. Late afternoons are for going to the beach, where Ken (Gosling) endlessly competes for Barbie’s affections against Ken (Simu Liu) and Ken (Kingsley Ben-Adir), among other Kens. Nighttime is for extravagantly choreographed disco-dance parties, DJ-ed by none other than Barbie (Hari Nef), and — much to Ken’s dismay — all-girl sleepovers. Eventually, the cardboard backdrop will rotate from moon to sun, and it’s time for yet another day in utopia.

Except, in the middle of one of their regular super-cool and totally awesome sing-alongs, Barbie blurts out, “You guys ever think about dying?” No one, least of all the shiny, happy person who said it, has any idea where that random bummer came from. The next morning, Barbie’s imaginary shower is cold. Her imaginary milk has curdled. The collective perkiness of her friends and neighbors only seems to highlight her inexplicably bad mood. Her stiletto-ready arches suddenly fall flat. And then, she comes face to face with what can only be described as the Thanos of the Barbie Cinematic Universe: cellulite.

And thus, Alpha Barbie seeks counsel from Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), that reclusive doll who lives up in the cubist castle on the hill and hasn’t been the same since her owner “played with her too hard.” You must venture from Barbieland into the real world, she tells her, via a boat, a camper, a rocket ship and a snow mobile, clad in outfits to match each mode of transportation. Once you arrive in the equally plastic city of Los Angeles, she must find the young girl who plays with you. Hoping to impress his true love, Ken tags along for the ride.

Once in our world, Barbie will encounter sexual harassment, gender inequity, the benefits of crying, the CEO of Mattel (Will Ferrell) and the mother (America Ferrara) and daughter (Ariana Greenblatt) who’ve introduced such morbid thoughts into her brain. Ken will discover horses, Hummer SUVs, and toxic masculinity. She returns with her new human friends to Barbieland in a state of dazed enlightenment. He comes back as a full-blown Kencel, spreading a gospel of full-frontal dude-ity.

Gerwig is a triple-threat talent who’s never lost touch with her inner child, which is why her coming-of-age masterpiece Lady Bird (2017) feels so immediate in its teen-angst drama and her singular adaptation of Little Women (2019) is as much an emo fan letter to Jo March as it is a Masterpiece Theater-level period piece. You can feel her reconnecting with the kid who once spent afternoons dressing up dolls, as well as the tween who dismissed such things as childish, and the twentysomething who began to see Barbies as something potentially problematic. There’s a sort of summit between those younger selves, mediated by an older and wiser Greta, that happening onscreen beneath all that visual sparkle and dazzle. (And trust us when we say that cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and the entire production design team have outdone themselves when it comes to creating the visual equivalent of a Barbie play set come to life.) Not to mention a balance between kitsch, meta-commentary, and genuine appreciation that Gerwig is attempting to strike here. There are enough references to remind folks of a long history of Barbie culture and side characters — big up Michael Cera’s Allan, the resident beta male of the Barbieverse! — and several remember this? tidbits regarding Mattel’s more cringeworthy decisions. (Lookin’ at you, Growing Up Skipper.)

That probably would have been enough for the studio and the toy company footing the bill; throw in some film-nerd catnip like that ingenious 2001: A Space Odyssey parody preamble, and make sure Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling nail the what-me-worry sunniness and wear the various eras’ couture, and boom! The sound of money piling in will drown out the haters. Instead, Barbie adds levels of intelligence and interrogation into not just the script, co-written by Noah Baumbach, but the narrative itself. Rather than turn away from the baggage, the movie unpacks it. What was it about these dolls we loved, and what is it about them that now causes such divisive emotional reactions? Let’s not just drop Barbie and Ken into the real world circa 2023 — let’s have them question what it means to be plastic role models that run up against modern attitudes about womanhood and Neanderthal notions of manhood. You’ll still get your mondo Barbiemania, but you’re going to have deal with some pop-cultural potholes left in its wake. This is a movie that wants to have its Dreamhouse and burn it down to the ground, too.

Thankfully, Robbie and Gosling are onboard for all of it, whether it’s a wink at the audience, rocking an old-school musical number, or mounting a righteous “fuck you” to the patriarchy swaddled prettily in pink. Both get the assignment(s), and understand the layers. Which helps when there are enough movies crammed into this one epic tale of Doll-Doll Revolution to almost qualify as its own trilogy. Most of the various mix-and-match elements work: the high-concept comedy (minus Will Ferrell’s scenes, which surprisingly fall flat), the mother-daughter drama, the hero’s journey, and the droll digs at Matchbox 20’s “Push.” Sometimes, its reach exceeds its grasp. When the subtext occasionally becomes text — there’s a speech about the impossible paradoxes of being a woman that America Ferrera sells with sound and fury, and still comes off like an op-ed — it’s hard to not feel like you should be receiving college credits for watching even as you nod along. You can already hear the trolls dragging their knuckles toward their keyboards, ready to post their shut-up-and-dribble takes and accuse the film of co-opting Barbie in the name of corrupting minds.

Critical thinking isn’t mind corruption, of course. Nor is pointing out that you can love something and recognize that it’s flawed or has become inflammatory over time, then striving to fix it. It’s definitely not a bad thing to turn a potential franchise, whether built on a line of dolls or not, into something that refuses to dumb itself down or pander to the lowest common denominator. And the victory that is Gerwig, Robbie, and Gosling — along with a supporting cast and crew that revel in the idea of joining a benefic Barbie party — slipping in heady notions about sexualization, capitalism, social devolution, human rights and self-empowerment, under the guise of a lucrative, brand-extending trip down memory lane? That’s enough to make you giddy. We weren’t kidding about the “subversive” part above; ditto the “blockbuster.” A big movie can still have big ideas in 2023. Even a Barbie movie. Especially a Barbie movie.

From Rolling Stone US