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Review: Barbie (2023)

Barbie (2023)

Directed by: Greta Gerwig

Premise: Based on the Mattel toy line. Barbieland is populated by various versions of Barbie and Ken. Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) has an existential crisis and travels to the real world with Beach Ken (Ryan Gosling).

What Works: Barbie is a longstanding toy that has become a cultural institution with a complicated history. The doll has been criticized for representing unrealistic conceptions of women’s bodies and idealizing materialism but the toy line has also imagined the doll in all sorts of professional and occupational contexts and the very act of play with dolls can be a vehicle for creativity. The 2023 Barbie film embraces the toy’s complex history and dramatizes what this doll has meant for the culture, and in particular for women and girls. Barbie is also an investigation of the limits of domestic and consumer lifestyles. In this story both consumerism and gender frameworks that are absent of meaningful human relationships ultimately fail and produce something terrible. The filmmakers of Barbie dramatize these issues while having a good time. Barbie is invested in its ideas but it is also very funny. The filmmakers interrogate the cultural meaning of the toy line while showing an affection for the Barbie property and incorporate many of the products associated with the toy line. The production design is extraordinary in the way it channels the unique Barbie aesthetic. The performances are keyed into the movie’s unique pitch especially Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in the lead roles.

What Doesn’t: Barbie the doll is a children’s toy but Barbie the movie is not a children’s film. There is a whole franchise of animated made-for-DVD movies that are geared toward children but 2023’s live action Barbie film is not in keeping with those releases. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is comparable to Spike Jonze’s 2009 adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. Both movies use child-oriented properties in reflective stories that are geared toward older audiences. That’s not a flaw of Barbie but this film may not hold the attention of very young viewers and its sense of humor skews older. The story fumbles with inconsistences and incomplete subplots. The mother and daughter played by America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt are supposed to bond but that’s never convincing. Mattel executives, led by the CEO played by Will Ferrell, are established as a secondary antagonist but the executives quickly become extraneous to the story and the moviemakers don’t know what to do with them. The wobbly storytelling impacts the film’s themes and politics. Barbie is ultimately a grab bag of ideas that don’t entirely come together.

Bottom Line: Barbie is a satire, one that is geared toward older viewers. The plotting and commentary are messy but it is a fascinating mess that is entertaining and very funny. In its best moments, Barbie points to new ways of creating entertainment around a familiar intellectual property.

Episode: #959 (July 30, 2023)