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Review: Barbie

Greta Gerwig's Barbie opens with the funniest parody of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey since The Simpsons. The Moonwatcher here is replaced with a little girl and Barbie is the Monolith. It's a hilarious moment that shows the significance of Matel's doll in the history of toys for young girls. It is also a heady way to start that combined with the PG-13 rating should make it clear this film is not for little girls who play with Barbie but for grown women who used to play with Barbie.

Front and center in the film is a reckoning with the doll's impact on the emotional and psychological journey young girls go through. It's a more thoughtful film than you would expect from a film based on a toy. While there is a chance Gerwig's approach will alienate those wanting a Barbie story here that builds on the brand, the choice to make the film a critical satire on the unreal image Barbie represents to young girls and the reality of a patriarchal society is welcomed.

The first act is a zippy introduction to the world of Barbie. Fans wanting to live in a world of dream homes and beach sets will find much to enjoy. In Barbieland, Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) lives a fantasy life in which each day is full of parties, dance sequences, and beach time. Each Barbie has a specialty or job. That includes Issa Rae as President Barbie, Alexandra Shipp's Writer Barbie, and Emma Mackey's Doctor Barbie. The costume and set design here are impressive and detailed. I talked to a woman after the film who relished getting to see life-size sets of playsets she had as a kid.

On the sidelines of the Barbies are the Kens (Kingsley Ben-Adir, Simu Liu, and of course Ryan Gosling). Gosling plays Beach Ken whose whole identity is defined by his desperate need for Barbie's attention. He won't be happy if she doesn't say hi to him. He wants nothing more than to be invited for a sleepover but isn't sure exactly what they are supposed to do during one.

Barbieland is rocked with Robbie's Barbie admits one day that she thinks about death. She then begins to lose her powers, her arched feet go flat and her first cellulite dimple appears. She and the other Barbies freak out and Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) explains that there is a riff between the real world and Barbieland and that Barbie must go to the real world and find the person playing with her and find out what is going on. Beach Ken tags along for the adventure.

From here, Gerwig begins to let the plot fade into the background. Mattel's CEO (Will Ferrell) warns that if they don't get Barbie and Ken back to Barbieland, things may get extremely bad. So there is a bit of a chase plot worked in but all of this begins to not matter as the film pushes its message out. The mechanics of Barbie's world become little interest in favor of a thoughtful exploration of what Barbie represents to generations of women. Does she inspire girls to dream big or burden them with physical expectations that are impossible to attain? Is Barbie a good thing or a bad thing for young girls?

The answer Barbie provides is somewhere in the middle. Gerwig has taken an IP film and crafted it into an interesting comment on feminism and toxic patriarchal thinking. Kudos to Mattel for being this brave. The film openly criticizes the company for having men make decisions about toys for young girls. It doesn't hide its criticism of the brand. However, it also serves as a big commercial and there is always a sense that the film still needs to come down on the side of pro-Barbie. Ultimately the film still promotes the very thing it is criticizing.

The things that shine in an uncomplicated way in the film are the two lead performances. Robbie crafts Barbie into a likable and yet confused heroine. Gosling is pitch-perfect here portraying Ken as a tragic goof whose insecurities and self-centered tendencies are genuinely dangerous. His performance has to straddle a tough line between someone you laugh at and yet hope to be better.

Barbie is a fun, funny, and interesting movie. Not everything works and there is a nagging sense that the film is stretched to two hours for international markets and not because there was enough content to warrant that runtime.



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