The highly anticipated Barbie live-action film is finally here, directed by Greta Gerwig (Little Women, Ladybird) and co-written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, Marriage Story). Starring Margot Robbie in the titular role with Ryan Gosling as her arm candy, Ken, Barbie includes Simu Liu, America Ferrera, Michael Cera, Kate McKinnon, Will Ferrell, and a handful of the Sex Education cast in supporting roles.
Taking place in the fictional Barbieland where every day is perfectly perfect, Stereotypical Barbie (Robbie) wakes up with flawless hair and fresh breath, then greets the other Barbies in their Dream Houses before enjoying a big day of beach activities. Barbieland is a matriarchal utopia where Barbies hold all positions of power while the Kens (and Allen) are relegated to being handsome set decorations. The Barbies are self-aware enough to know that they’re dolls, but still naive enough to believe that their ‘you can be anything’ attitude and pink-branded feminism has cured the real world of all issues of sexism and misogyny.
That is, until the day Stereotypical Barbie starts experiencing a crisis; soon her hair is out of place, her breath is bad, and worst of all – her feet are flat. Diagnosed by Weird Barbie (McKinnon) as experiencing an imprint from the girl playing with her, Barbie sets off for the Real World with her Ken in tow in order to get to the bottom of her sudden and irrepressible thoughts of death and imperfect human features. The two dolls soon discover that the Real World is nothing like what the Barbies believed, with a previously downtrodden Ken now inspired by the overwhelming masculinity of the Real World and Barbie alarmed by its lack of feminine energy.
It’s hard to know where to start with a film like Barbie; across the board, it’s so well executed that there’s almost too much to break down. Do we talk about set design? The casting? The themes of existentialism and the dichotomy of a doll? You’d be forgiven for believing based on the trailers and marketing that Barbie is just a silly romp in a plastic world with a bunch of articulated dolls. In actuality, it is an incredibly deep and meta exploration about what it means to be human, a woman, and the follies of pursuing perfectionism.
Perhaps the best place to start is with the doll herself. Since her inception in 1959, Barbie has been both aspirational and a beacon of unreachable perfection, and Gerwig explores this through the myriad of Barbies in Barbieland like President Barbie, Journalist Barbie, Pilot Barbie, and Doctor Barbie in addition to the self-identified Stereotypical Barbie. Arguably the first doll of her kind, Barbie represented possibilities – she was a woman of means who could afford her own home, car, yacht, and never-ending wardrobe.
But for every girl that she inspired, there was also a girl that she repressed. Whether it was intended or not, Barbie’s ‘womanly’ figure, beautiful face and coiffed hair became an unachievable standard for how real women should look (not to mention the doll’s contribution to consumerist culture, which is epitomised in the film when a young girl calls Barbie a fascist) and it’s her perceived lack of these things that triggers Barbie’s meltdown in the film. As it’s eloquently and powerfully put by America Ferrera’s character, Gloria, in a monologue that stabs at the very root of patriarchy in practice, “it’s too much” to be a woman in society. Women, and Barbie by extension, face too many contradictions and hurdles in life, forced to bend ourselves into any number of shapes just to appease a system that wasn’t built for us.
On the practical production side, Gerwig leans heavily into the fact that Barbie herself is a doll to be played with, and the set pieces on Barbie flawlessly emulate the doll’s reality. Armed with an allegedly global-supply-shortening level of pink paint and fantastical mid-century inspired set design from Katie Spencer and Sarah Greenwood, who both worked on Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, Barbieland perfectly mimics the play sets and accessories of the doll; from 2D pantries and refrigerator shelves, to showers that don’t actually have water, and the entirely hand painted practical set pieces like the beach, space and countryside, almost no part of the Barbie set is created through CGI, which serves to make the notion that these are dolls all the more believable.
As an extension of the set, the way the Barbies and Kens move is so reminiscent of a child playing with a doll. Every morning Barbie floats down to her car from the rooftop of her Dream House because no child ever walks their Barbie to the car, and Ken’s beach accident involves gravity defying stunt work that only a child could actually think up. It’s these small, seemingly inconsequential things, plus the absolutely flawless casting of Robbie and Gosling, that makes Gerwig’s movie so great. If the film has any flaw at all, it’s a somewhat hamfisted finale that makes sense in the context of the story but left this particular Barbie a little unsatisfied.
The Barbie IP is no stranger to the film-treatment, serving up classics like The Princess and the Pauper, Barbie of Swan Lake, and Barbie in the Nutcracker amongst some 30 other computer animated flicks and shows since the early 2000s. But Gerwig’s Barbie is the first live-action film in the fashion doll’s history, and the actress/up-and-coming director has all guns blazing on set for her third major directorial effort.
Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is a bright, bold, wacky, and somewhat unhinged film about the intricacies, restrictions, and unreasonable requirements of being a modern woman, told through the lens of one of the world’s most controversial and inspirational toy lines.