There is always an age when children wonder whether or not they’re a little too old to play with Barbies. For me, it came on rather suddenly. Just before I turned ten, I decided I could no longer hide behind the excuse of having a younger sister who was still of suitable Barbie-playing age. Not only did I choose to stop playing with them, but I also felt the need to deny having ever played with them. I was suddenly embarrassed by something that once brought me so much happiness and opportunity for creativity. This experience is an all too common early example of how children learn to reject anything associated with femininity in favor of societal expectations, depriving them of joy. Greta Gerwig’s latest film, Barbie, is a jolt of that specific kind of lost joy and a sharp, witty indictment of the industry that spawned a cultural icon.
Barbie begins with a brilliant scene (also the film’s first teaser) that illustrates the arrival of the Barbie doll as akin to Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking science fiction epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gerwig shows young girls in drab clothing playing with baby dolls in a desert landscape. In voiceover, our narrator (a pitch-perfect Helen Mirren) shares that when girls play with baby dolls, they have one role, mother. How limiting is that? When the score booms and the audience first sees Barbie (Margot Robbie), she appears like Kubrick’s monolith–similarly modern, alien, and towering. This scene is not just an allusion to 2001 but an acknowledgment of the immensity of Barbie’s significance. Ideally, girls were no longer limited to one role and could suddenly see the endless possibilities ahead. The scene marks Gerwig as a self-assured filmmaker playing in her vast sandbox of cinematic references and shows her knack for blending what some would consider high and low art. It also establishes the film’s specific tone, a blend of weird and wacky humor with whip-smart undertones that will linger in the mind long after the film’s conclusion.
After establishing the invention of the world-famous doll, the audience is thrust into the resplendent, dazzling world of Barbieland. A detailed morning routine is often the perfect introduction to a character (e.g., Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread or Jerry Mulligan in An American in Paris), and Barbie is no exception. It’s a delightful way to show that her existence is comically perfect, with clever touches that mimic a viewer’s experience of playing with Barbies. No liquids are in glasses, no water comes out of the shower, and the breakfast food looks made of plastic. She doesn’t walk down the stairs like a human but floats down as if a child is carrying her. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran brings Barbie’s iconic outfits to life, with dozens of ensembles that are perfect for each iteration of Barbie throughout the film. Production designer Sarah Greenwood’s glossy, waxy utopia is also the stuff of dreams. It beautifully recalls versions of Barbie’s Dream House as a product with its clever use of pink surfaces, beautiful retro objects, and decals found on today’s toys. Barbie’s open-concept Dream House also allows her to wake up and instantly see and greet every Barbie in Barbieland.
In Barbieland, there are many versions of Barbie, and they all are different and beautiful in their ways. More importantly, though, these Barbies can do anything and everything that they put their minds to. Barbieland is home to President Barbie (Issa Rae), Physicist Barbie (Emma Mackey), Dr. Barbie (Hari Nef), Writer Barbie (Alexandra Shipp), and Lawyer Barbie (Sharon Rooney). As these characters repeat “Hi, Barbie!” and enthusiastically support each other, it displays the film’s wild, satirical nature, heightening everything in Barbieland to exhibit the stark contrast to the Real World. The Barbies believe they’ve solved the Real World’s problems by existing in and representing women in these influential roles. Meanwhile, the Kens in Barbieland exist only to support the Barbies. As the central “Beach” Ken, Ryan Gosling gives an unhinged, committed comedic performance that has to be seen to be believed. He’s a triple threat, with some of the best line deliveries from the film’s wickedly funny interpretation of the character. It’s also worth pointing out that Michael Cera is fabulous as Allan, a discontinued friend of Ken.
Margot Robbie was born to play Barbie. Specifically, she is perfect for Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach’s iteration, which they’ve dubbed “Stereotypical Barbie.” She’s effervescent in the role, with a statuesque and playful rigidity to her doll-like movements and a vulnerability that translates to her off-screen reputation as a beautiful blonde star. Gerwig’s direction of Robbie and the inclusion of an incredibly pointed, self-aware joke about her beauty and real-life persona calls to mind when George Cukor directed Katharine Hepburn to a hit in The Philadelphia Story after she had been unfairly dubbed box office poison. While Hepburn played a character based explicitly on her public persona and not on a decades-old product, it’s hard not to see Robbie’s casting as Barbie as a similarly biting bit of meta-casting. Gerwig understands her, and, in turn, Barbie feels like Robbie’s career-defining role.
Things begin to go awry in Barbieland when Stereotypical Barbie begins experiencing existential dread and thoughts of death. Barbie has more summertime sadness than its candy-coated, sparkling exterior would lead you to believe. When her feet no longer have their iconic arch, and she starts to experience new feelings of shame and embarrassment, she ventures up to see Weird Barbie (a delightful Kate McKinnon) to fix the problem. It’s a moment that’s part The Red Shoes, part The Wizard of Oz in its visual and thematic references, yet entirely Gerwig in its strange charm. McKinnon leans hard into Weird Barbie, an Oz-like character with colorful marker on her face and a funky haircut because “someone played with her a little too hard in The Real World.” Weird Barbie tells Stereotypical Barbie that a tear in the portal between Barbieland and The Real World is causing her to malfunction. To fix it, she must travel to The Real World and find the girl who is playing with her. The journey to Barbieland is also a glorious showcase for the film’s director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto. The cinematography is eye-catching, with odes to Old Hollywood technicolor. Barbieland is so visually striking that when Stereotypical Barbie and her unplanned stowaway, Ken, arrive through the portal to Los Angeles, it looks gloomy by comparison.
In The Real World, Gerwig and Baumbach crank the humor to eleven. It’s sharp and absolutely relentless in its hysterical commentary on the patriarchy. Some viewers may be tempted to call some of the humor on the nose, but it’s actually just crystal clear. The writers seem to be unwilling to allow the audience the opportunity to misinterpret any of this film’s strong messages regarding gender roles and the corporatization of the patriarchy. No one is getting off the hook for this. While Barbie is shocked by the rampant misogyny, male dominance, and “undertone of violence” outside Barbieland, Ken is a wide-eyed himbo eager to take it all in. The images of horses, golf courses, and a glistening Sylvester Stallone show the absurdity of stereotypical male interests and how easy it is for impressionable men with no identity of their own to be sucked into power structures that favor them. How much of this is already a part of Ken’s identity with his sporty attire and toned abs? Gerwig shows an inherent curiosity toward the idea that even a doll in a matriarchal construct has traces of heteronormative masculinity to appeal to consumers.
The promotional materials for Barbie have become ubiquitous as Warner Brothers has mounted an aggressive marketing campaign for the film’s release. As the Mattel logo flashes before the start of the film, it’s understandable to be wary of whether or not this film will feel like corporate propaganda. Instead, it’s baffling and mystifying that Gerwig and Baumbach could get away with so much of the script’s pointed humor in a film bearing the Mattel logo. While in The Real World, Mattel becomes front and center as their CEO (Will Ferrell) discovers that a Barbie has crossed through the portal and entered their world. Frankly, the film spends too much time at Mattel HQ with characters that seem too cartoonish and out-of-place, even for this film’s bizarre world. The point is proven quickly that the CEO’s Board is made up entirely of men, even though they are responsible for a product with a market demographic comprised mainly of women and girls. Instead of belaboring that point, the script could have spent more time digging deeper into the themes and characters already introduced. The only saving grace of these scenes is that they introduce Mattel employee Gloria (a scene-stealing America Ferrera). It turns out that Gloria and her daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) have a deep connection to Stereotypical Barbie and may be the key to solving the problems back in Barbieland.
As Gloria, America Ferrera is the emotional core of the entire film. In a brilliant monologue, Gloria shares just how impossible it is to be a woman, and it’s here that the startling combination of melancholy and warmth that was so present in Lady Bird and Little Women in particular creeps back in. It’s the mark of Gerwig’s magic touch and her remarkable understanding of the pain of just existing as a woman. While Gerwig may have expressed these pangs and desires more eloquently in her most recent films, it’s remarkable how well that message works in an audacious, strange comedy like Barbie. When Ken’s travels to The Real World have ripple effects on Barbieland, seeing their utopia suddenly threatened is comical yet painfully crushing. It’s here, too, that Gerwig and Baumbach have scripted some of the funniest, most incisive, laugh-out-loud jokes in film this year, referencing everything from Matchbox Twenty to The Godfather to The Snyder Cut. The tonal balance of being a playful comedy and a heartfelt exploration of what it means to be a human feels timeless yet incredibly modern.
The film also makes it clear that musicals may just be Greta Gerwig’s true metier. From the film’s first dance sequence, when Barbie locks eyes with the audience to draw them in, to Ken’s dream ballet and ‘80s-inspired power ballad, “I’m Just Ken,” Gerwig displays her curiosity in the choreography and passion behind big Hollywood musicals. The film’s soundtrack is filled with earworms, including Dua Lipa’s disco-inspired “Dance The Night” and Lizzo’s hilarious track “Pink.” When audiences hear the way Billie Eilish’s new song, “What Was I Made For?” is used, there won’t be a dry eye in the theater.
While Barbie focuses on the world’s most iconic doll and society’s relationship to her constructed meaning, Gerwig slyly makes a movie about what it means to be alive. As Stereotypical Barbie’s existential crisis deepens, she meets her maker, Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), and discusses her identity as a doll after experiencing The Real World. When children play with Barbies and create their doll’s story for that day, the ending has endless possibilities. They can even pick up that same doll and resume the next day, finding a new adventure for their doll. There is only one ending for humans, but there is also beauty in something fleeting. For Gerwig, there is an inextricable link between the stories humans create in childhood and adulthood to deal with how uncomfortable life really is. Barbie and the memory of her has always been a part of that, and now, Barbie defines it.
Warner Bros will release Barbie only in theaters on July 21.