Barbie, one half of the unprecedented “Barbenheimer” phenomenon, is an international sensation. The film blew past all expectations, earning $155 million in its first three days in theaters. But even Barbie stands on the shoulders of giants. She owes a debt of gratitude (sort of) to a humble Disney Channel original movie called Teen Beach 2. The effervescent musical sequel to Teen Beach Movie, Teen Beach 2 features feminist themes and bubby stylistic qualities that make it an unexpectedly perfect companion piece to Barbie.
First, let’s get into some background information. Teen Beach Movie is a zany mid-2010s flick starring Ross Lynch and Maia Mitchell. They portray two teenagers, Brady and Mack, who unexpectedly get sucked into a 1960s surf movie musical called Wet Side Story. The pair are caught in the middle of a feud between two rival gangs—the bikers and the surfers—who are ready to rumble when biker Butchy’s little sister Lela starts dating Tanner, the leader of the surfers. Or, at least that’s what normally happens. But when Brady and Mack invade the film, they attract the attention of Tanner and Lela instead, Back to the Future-style. If they ever want to get home, they have to set the film back to normal, which they do. Good for them!
But Teen Beach 2 is where all the Barbie-isms come into play. In the sequel, Lela and Tanner turn up in the Real World. It’s only with help of Brady and Mack that they can prevent the film (and all of their friends back home) from disappearing. In both Teen Beach 2 and Barbie, the characters exist in artificial world of perfection. Nothing ever changes in Wet Side Story. Their hair is never messy or wet. And they can’t help but follow the carefully scripted plot to a tee.
Just like Barbie, things start to get all weird in Teen Beach 2 when the female lead becomes disillusioned with her life. The plot of Wet Side Story diverges when Tanner is about to disarm an evil weather machine (you know, as one does). Rather than stay behind with the other girls, Lela suggests that she come along with him to help. She snaps out of it after a moment, but it creates a momentary ripple nonetheless.
Then she flubs her meet cute, falling off the stage while performing a song. Tanner catches her, but she says, “I can’t do this,” and demands for him to put her down. Just like the bewildered Barbies, none of the other characters know how to cope with her behavior. So Lela pulls a Stereotypical Barbie, journeying to the Real World. Except she does it with the aid of a magical necklace instead of a bunch of transportation modes.
And of course, Tanner—who is essentially the proto-Beach Ken and ultimate himbo—tags along. As they arrive in the Real World and track down Brady and Mack, their personalities are summed up perfectly. Lela explains, “I carried the necklace out into the water, questioning my whole existence.” To which Tanner proudly adds, “And I didn’t question anything!”
At first, the Real World is a delight to them. But the longer they’re there, the more they lose their movie magic—much like Barbie’s flat feet and ability to cry. At first, no matter what clothes Lela puts on, they transform into swinging ‘60s outfits. But after spending a day with Mack, the magical connection between her and Wet Side Story is severed, at least as far as sartorial choices go. She can borrow Mack’s clothes and actually look modern.
Similarly, Tanner loses the sparkle that appears on his front tooth when he smiles. And, to his utter distress, his hair can now get wet. Just like Ken and Barbie, the two are changed by their experiences in the Real World. Tanner feels worried for the first time in his life. (Although, to his credit, he doesn’t address his growing feelings of inadequacy by bringing incel culture to Wet Side Story.) Meanwhile, Lela begins to realize that there’s so much more she wants to do with her life.
Lela’s transformation is at the heart of Teen Beach 2, and mirrors what we see from Barbie. She becomes dissatisfied with the predictable perfection of Wet Side Story, and enamored with the challenges and endless possibilities that await her in the Real World. As Barbie learns that she doesn’t have to be perfect, Lela also realizes that she has the power to take control over her own life. When she returns to the world of Wet Side Story, she changes the film. It reflects how she wants her life to play out. Wet Side Story becomes Lela, Queen of the Beach, where she’s the main character with power and agency rather than just the love interest or an object for her male counterparts to fight over.
Teen Beach 2 bears more than a few aesthetic similarities to Barbie as well. The world of Wet Side Story has a bright, bubbly, vintage-style aesthetic, leaning into its own artificiality. The characters are chipper and doll-like, and they engage in more than a few dance numbers that give a nod to classic Hollywood musicals. (One in particular features an aerial shot of characters in the shape of a frown contorting into a smile, which has just a touch of the Busby Berkeley.) Sure, it might not match the heights of “I’m Just Ken,” which draws inspiration from Gene Kelly’s extended dance sequence in Singin’ in the Rain, but still, it’s Kenough.
Did Greta Gerwig draw inspiration from a made-for-TV Disney movie that came out when she was 32 years old? Probably not. Does Teen Beach 2 have the creative ambition of a film that opens with a sly 2001: A Space Odyssey riff, which not only deconstructs little girls’ relationships with their dolls, but serves as a clarion call for young female filmmakers not to hold sacred the male-dominated relics of the past? No, it does not. But would it make for a killer, sun-kissed double feature with Barbie? Undoubtedly.