Barbie – movie review

The hype has been enormous, but does Barbie, the movie, live up to expectations? Well, some elements do and others not so much.

The film is populated by the Barbies and Kens of Barbieland, where women rule the roost and men trail in their wake. The chief Ken (bleach blonde Ryan Gosling, with a six-pack to die for) has “the hots” for principal Barbie (perfectly turned out, gorgeous Margot Robbie). Barbie, though, wants to keep things platonic. Even a kiss is out of the question. 

Everything in Barbieland is picture perfect. Barbie wakes up without a hair out of place in her open house that everyone can see into and warmly greets all the other Barbies. Same goes for the Kens’ salutations to one another, although in Gosling’s case his jealousy of rival suitors is on show from the outset. Suddenly though, Barbie is strangely out of sync. She finds herself raising the issue of death with the other Barbies, before quickly checking herself. But then, to reinforce her discombobulation, the natural, dreamy arch in her foot collapses … and she burns the toast. Rather than her usual practice of floating down from her house into her car, she lands heavily alongside it. And to top it off – horror of horrors – she even has cellulite … for the first time.

The other Barbies explain that she’s malfunctioning and the only one who can address her issues is Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon). It turns out that somehow the separation Barbie had from the real world has been broken. Weird Barbie instructs Barbie to travel to the real world to try to find the girl who initiated the split – which she does, Ken in tow. Things don’t go according to plan and Ken gets his own ideas about how he would like to reconfigure Barbieland.

Barbie, the movie, has some genuine, smile-inducing and laugh-out-loud moments, but I wanted more. For all the emphasis on girl power, which I wholeheartedly endorse, it’s too vacuous. Given the writing talent involved (Greta Gerwig – who also directs – and Noah Baumbach, who co-wrote Frances Ha), I was hoping for more cleverness. Some of it is certainly on show, but not enough for my liking. I found the start flat and, at one point, even distasteful. And it’s a giant – and not at all subtle – ad for Mattel. Surely the dolls sell themselves, as they have for generations.

On the plus side, Margot Robbie does all she can to elevate the spectacle. It’s fun to watch her transition from naive to enlightened. Kate McKinnon all but steals the show as Weird Barbie. Her comic turn is special.

I loved the references to the Barbie creator Ruth Handler, who named Barbie after her daughter Barbara. (It was 1959 when Ruth took Barbie to the annual Toy Fair in New York … and the rest is history.) And the plot pivots around a heartfelt and inspired monologue by America Ferrera as Mattel’s executive secretary Gloria. As the narrator, Helen Mirren also finds moments to shine.

I appreciated the blend of “toyish” action with real life. I thought the filmmakers did that particularly well … and the colour palette is delightful. A number of standout scenes include Barbie eating and drinking without food on her plate or liquid in her cup, and Ken’s surfing wipe out.

So while Barbie has endearing features, the plotting could have been stronger.

Alex First

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