She’s been a doctor, an astronaut, a flight attendant, and now she’s the star of her first live-action movie. It’s been virtually impossible to exist online without catching wind of the hype surrounding Barbie, Greta Gerwig’s hotly anticipated film starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as everyone’s favorite plastic pair, Barbie and Ken. Between the sharp script, playful production design, and a pair of contrasting but pitch-perfect performances, Barbie is an ambitious, unexpected, and heartfelt ode to the doll who epitomizes the modern idea of feminism.
Co-written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, Barbie follows the eponymous doll (Robbie) as she’s forced to leave the perfect pink haven of Barbieland. She heads to the real world after she begins to sprout distinctly un-Barbie like imperfections. Rudely awakened by the patriarchal structures of present-day Los Angeles, Barbie grapples with her mortality, identity, and sense of self as she races to find the human girl who plays with her.
On paper, Gerwig may seem like an unorthodox pick for what might otherwise seem like a standard studio-generated, IP-based box office megahit. Her previous film, Little Women, certainly caught mainstream buzz. However, the majority of her work (including Lady Bird and Frances Ha) is of a distinctly offbeat, indie flavor. Her films are modern indie classics, yes, but hardly the kind of thing that would set execs at ease about handing over the keys to one of the most beloved, iconic, and carefully cultivated brand identities of all time.
But, as it turns out, Gerwig was just the woman for the job. Instead of attempting to circumvent the conventional expectations and pressure put on any movie associated with the Barbie name, Gerwig puts them under a microscope. It’s a delightfully unanticipated angle, but as one that also feels simultaneously perfect for a character who’s become so massive she can at times feel like a parody of herself.
Make no mistake, though, this isn’t a parody. It is full of guffaw-inducing one-liners (often from Gosling); however, Barbie isn’t interested in making fun of or being condescending towards its titular heroine. Yes, she starts out as the stiff-armed caricature most associate with her name. But it quickly becomes clear that Barbie wants to talk about her place in pop culture, and the contrasting facets of her “girl power” identity, as opposed to just playing it for laughs.
Barbie (as the film points out) herself is a character riddled by parody. She’s a powerful career woman who teaches girls about the power of independence. But she’s also the epitome of conventional Western beauty, and has destroyed the body image of many a young woman. Gerwig understands this, and treats Barbie with the grace and depth she deserves. This is a complex, interesting character whose multitudes are not just explored but celebrated as she journeys through the real world.
Though she may have initially been over the moon at the idea of visiting the real world, harsh reality suddenly sets in. She realized that this is a cruel, patriarchal system built by men to keep women down. While it’s a rude awakening for the increasingly-emotional and existentially confused Barbie, a male-dominated society is the perfect playground for Ryan Gosling’s Ken. He takes to the real world like a Barbie foot to a stiletto.
In addition to its complex, thoughtful characterization of its leading lady, Barbie’s approach to bringing Ken to life is just as fascinating. The film fully embraces Ken’s strange status as a veritable human accessory to Barbie. Constantly yearning and always overlooked by the seemingly-clueless Barbie, Ken finally arrives in a society where men are the ones in power. He even makes it his mission to bring the good news of the patriarchy to Barbieland.
It makes for plenty of glorious comedy, including the culmination of Ken’s ruin to Barbieland with a battlefield fight sequence/musical dance number. But it also gives Barbie a distinct poignancy and potency in its critique of gender and gender roles. As much as the film acknowledges Barbie’s flawed persona, it’s also willing to say the quiet part out loud. She was created because a world without the patriarchy is one that could only exist in fantasy.
She’s a woman built to embody the strength of femininity, but she’s a woman created in a patriarchal society. So when she’s suddenly forced to exit the feminist paradise she’s always known, she gets to experience the harsh realities human women face every day. In defiance of this bleakness, Barbie creates the ultimate female catharsis in allowing the audience to see themselves in the down-to earth Gloria (America Ferrera), who meets Barbie face-to-face and journeys to Barbieland.
Gloria is accompanied by her tween daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt). While preteen Sasha is critical of Barbie’s damaging impact on beauty norms, Gloria represents the nostalgic, joyful, comforting memories of girlhood that Barbie conjures. Where Barbie has so often served as an escape and an inspiration for girls, it’s the human Gloria who ends up reminding Barbie of who she really is, and why she’s always been that way.
Barbie strikes with surprising emotional fortitude, especially for anyone who grew up playing with and finding joy in dolls. This is a simultaneous homage to that joy as well as an affirmation that growing up is hard—though Barbie’s life may be perfect, ours isn’t. Between these moments of intense existential and introspective reflection, Barbie still, of course, finds time to indulge in the fun of the ridiculous, highly-saturated world of Barbie and her friends.
The ensemble cast is chock full of scene stealers, including Kate McKinnon as Weird Barbie, Issa Rae as President Barbie, and Ncuti Gatwa and Kingsley Ben-Adir as two of the many Kens. Their high-energy, high-camp performances are heightened by costume design from Jacqueline Durran and production design from Sarah Greenwood.
Capped off by near-constant nods to the extensive history of the Barbie brand (including its many bizarre, discontinued characters, toys, and fashion choices) Barbie finds the miraculous middle ground between colorful camp humor and introspective soul searching—a masterstroke and the ultimate tribute to a one-of-a-kind woman.
Barbie hits theaters on July 21.