Twelve years ago, if you had told me that we would soon get a big-screen, big-budget Barbie film that was not only wildly funny but also meditative and introspective, I would have laughed until I cried. Crying over the artistic state of the film industry seemed more appropriate then. That was 2011, when the utterly braindead Transformers: Dark of the Moon came in second in the year’s U.S. box office totals, and Cars 2 and The Smurfs weren’t far behind. Because there’s still no shortage of lazy cash-grab films like these, I’ll always be a bit cynical about the output of major studios, especially films based on or around toy lines. However, director Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is a stunning reminder of how far this type of blockbuster entertainment has come, and that maybe some studios’ leadership groups are capable of being less cynical themselves.
Gerwig’s Barbie isn’t appropriate for all ages, but I suspect it will be discovered and reinterpreted for years to come, just like the doll it both lionizes and spoofs. The film’s cold open — a spoof of 2001: A Space Odyssey — is much like its teaser trailer, with a few tweaks that blend the ideas there with the rest of the film. Mattel’s Barbie was the first major line of dolls that were not babies, and Gerwig builds her film’s thesis statement on the importance of this development.
The “Stereotypical” Barbie (Margot Robbie — other actresses play other versions of Barbie with various careers) can’t possibly be all things to all girls and women, however. She faces this fact once she leaves the pink plastic world of “Barbie Land” behind, entering the real world to find the girl who’s been playing with her and putting non-pink thoughts in her head.
Barbie Land itself is the product of brilliant production design by Sarah Greenwood, seamless art decoration by Dean Clegg, and outstanding set decoration by Clara Gomez del Moral and Katie Spencer. There’s an outstanding visual joke everywhere you look. Whether it’s the contents of Barbie’s refrigerator being mostly one big sticker, her shower not actually dispensing water but Barbie reacting as if it does, or the big spiral waterslide descending from one side of her dream house, the whole visual ethos of two-thirds of the film is the plastic toys. The rules of the transition between worlds are somewhat glossed over, but this glossing is done with even more virtuoso visual comedy, meaning the rules aren’t all that bothersome if you don’t intensely focus on them.
Of course, Barbies aren’t the only toys inhabiting Barbie Land. A Ken among Kens, our main Ken (Ryan Gosling) goes through an existential crisis of his own when he joins Barbie on her trip to the real world and humorously questions his role in their “relationship.”
Barbie is often an abstract exploration of the ways our society places ridiculous and arbitrary expectations on people based solely on gender. Its secret weapon in this effort is the superb performance of America Ferrera. To say exactly who she plays here would be a major spoiler, but suffice it to say she is often a mouthpiece for many of the film’s core ideas, most of which are not subtextual. It’s rare to see someone deliver such a memorable and unique performance with dialogue that so blatantly spells out what the director is thinking. That’s not to say that this dialogue is bad, — far from it — just that I was thoroughly impressed at how well Ferrera and Gerwig were able to weave it into the story without sacrificing pacing, humor, or performance.
I was similarly impressed by the performances of the film’s leads, Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. There probably couldn’t ever be a better Barbie or Ken in any possible version of a comedic live-action Barbie film. That’s fairly obvious, but their experienced knack for both comedy and drama serves them well as this particular film’s ambitions evolve and expand. Due in large part to their commitment, we arrive at an emotional and enlightening place that honestly makes the world feel a little more, well… pink! | George Napper