Stereotypical Barbie’s Quest for Meaning
Greta Gerwig, known for directing Lady Bird and Little Women, takes on the task of directing Barbie in a live-action film. The film features multiple versions of Barbie and Ken, played by Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, alongside Kate McKinnon, Simu Liu, and other renowned actors. The film also includes human characters portrayed by Rhea Perlman, America Ferrera, Will Ferrell, and others.
The story revolves around Stereotypical Barbie, who suddenly contemplates the meaning of life and finds her perfect existence turned upside down. To address her troubles, Weird Barbie suggests that Stereotypical Barbie venture into the real world to find answers. Little did Stereotypical Barbie know that Ken, portrayed by Gosling, who is deeply infatuated with her, secretly follows her into the real world.
Interestingly, in this film, the Barbies and Kens become aware of the existence of the natural world and even know how to go there. This concept is already quite absurd. This absurdity is a comedic element in the film, which fits well with the characters from Barbie Land. However, what is bothersome is how the executives from Mattel, characters from the real world, are also portrayed with absurdity.
Especially the character of CEO Mattel, played by Ferrell, lacks a clear motive.
Conveying Multiple Themes
Initially, CEO Mattel is depicted as the villain in the film, chasing Barbie to Barbie Land. However, as time goes on, the villainous motive of CEO Mattel is forgotten because other characters become the real villains. The presence of CEO Mattel and his subordinates in Barbie Land is insignificant in the story as if it is merely a formality to include the company Mattel, which produces Barbie, in the film.
Barbie is not just an ordinary comedy film, but it also attempts to be a satire addressing feminist issues and mother-child relationships. Unfortunately, with the limited duration of the film, there are many things to convey in this one film, especially from the middle to the end. The director and screenwriter of Barbie, Gerwig, clearly voice feminist issues in this film. The feminist message is conveyed significantly, sometimes leaving the audience with mixed feelings when watching that part.
The title clearly shows that the film focuses on Barbie’s story, played by Margot Robbie. Robbie appears effortlessly natural as the naive Stereotypical Barbie, always looking beautiful and exuding humor. It is surprising to see Gosling successfully embody Ken’s comical demeanor. Throughout the film, Ken always acts over-the-top or exaggerated, yet Gosling’s acting ability makes Ken’s flamboyant behavior not cringe-worthy and instead highly entertaining.
Regarding chemistry, the actors embodying Barbie and Ken establish a truly flawless connection with one another. Not only do they act well, but the Barbies and Kens also put on a lengthy and highly entertaining dance performance. Barbie is a challenging film to review due to its unique and thought-provoking ideas. Its brilliant opening segment is a foundation to depict the film’s concept.
Cinephiles would easily recognize the tribute to “the dawn of Men” scene from Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gerwig cleverly takes inspiration from this scene but adds her essence to the story. While 2001: A Space Odyssey portrays the evolution of humankind from apes to the creation of artificial intelligence capable of independent thought and action, Barbie simplifies this into the evolution of women.
It covers bodily autonomy, women’s empowerment, gender equality, patriarchal concepts, and existential crises. As an innocent character, Barbie becomes the perfect vessel to express these ideas from beginning to end. Gerwig intricately weaves this concept throughout the film using direction, dialogue, acting, setting, music, tributes, and all cinematic aspects. Like a master filmmaker, she encapsulates the history of feminism in less than two hours using toy dolls as characters.
It could not be more brilliant than this.
A Concept about Feminism Brilliantly Packaged
Barbie, unexpectedly, is not just another typical narrative film; it is a concept or idea about feminism, brilliantly packaged by the filmmaker. Barbie is not intended to be a box-office hit but an artistic film cleverly disguised with box-office gimmicks. The genius of the director, in collaboration with seasoned writer Noah Baumbach, is the key to the film’s success. Just a day after Oppenheimer’s release with all its narrative and aesthetic achievements, who would have thought that Barbie, with all its aesthetic charm, would also carry such profound messages?
The real greatness lies in the talented filmmakers behind the production of this film. Both directors are invaluable assets to the medium of film for its future artistic development. Gerwig, a multi-talented individual, has always maintained a connection with her inner child. It is why her coming-of-age masterpiece, Lady Bird, feels so relatable with its portrayal of teen angst, and her unique adaptation of Little Women serves as both an emotional love letter to Jo March and a high-quality period piece.
We can sense her reconnecting with the child who used to play dress-up with dolls, the adolescent who dismissed such things as childish, and the young adult who started to see Barbies as potentially problematic.
Ambition vs. Execution
Onscreen, there is a meeting of these younger versions of herself, mediated by a more mature and wiser Gerwig. This convergence occurs amidst all the visual splendor and brilliance as cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and the entire production design team go above and beyond, creating a vibrant world resembling a real-life Barbie playset. Additionally, Gerwig aims to balance kitsch, meta-commentary, and genuine appreciation in the film.
The film references the extensive history of Barbie culture and features side characters, like Michael Cera’s Allan. Moreover, there are several nods to moments from Barbie’s past, including some cringeworthy decisions made by Mattel. Luckily, Robbie and Gosling fully embrace every aspect of the film, whether it involves a playful nod to the audience, performing a classic musical number, or delivering a powerful message of defiance against patriarchal norms while cloaked in pink.
Mix-and-match elements blend well, such as the high-concept comedy, the mother-daughter drama, and the hero’s journey. Occasionally, the film’s ambition exceeds its execution. When the underlying themes become explicit in the dialogue, it can make one feel like they should be earning college credits while nodding to the discourse. Engaging in critical thinking does not equate to corrupting minds.
Instead, it involves acknowledging those aspects and working to improve them.
Transforming a potential franchise, whether centered on dolls or not, into something that refuses to dumb itself down or cater to the lowest common denominator is not harmful. The success of Gerwig, Robbie, and Gosling, as well as the supporting cast and crew who enthusiastically participate in an empowering Barbie project, lies in their skillful integration of profound themes such as sexualization, capitalism, societal decline, human rights, and self-empowerment.
They manage to weave these themes subtly into what appears to be a nostalgic and commercially-driven journey through memory lane. This combination is exhilarating. Our earlier mention of “blockbusters” and “subversive” is no exaggeration. A major film can still be brimming with significant ideas in 2023, even as a Barbie film.
- Frank, J. P. (2023). What Is Barbie Going For, Exactly? An Investigation. Vulture.
- Lemire, C. (2023). Barbie. Roger Ebert.
- Ryan, P. (2023). ‘Life in plastic, it’s fantastic!’ Your guide to the 2023 ‘Barbie’ movie starring Margot Robbie. USA TODAY.