Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
The current moviemaking climate is in a stranger place than it has been for a long time. The last 10 to 20 years have been dominated by sequels, reboots, remakes and franchises, but it seems the public’s interests may be changing. Unfortunately, studios aren’t really receiving the message, but there are some glimmers of hope. This refers to filmmakers like Greta Gerwig, who has already firmly established herself as one of the most exciting, creative and talented writer/directors in years. With critical darlings like Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019), Gerwig easily gained the clout to do whatever artistic endeavour she wanted. As such, there was a notable gasp when she signed on to helm Barbie (2023), a film which was surely nothing more than another brand name, corporate product. Why would a talent like Gerwig sell out for bland, studio filmmaking, when she’s previously shown such individual creativity? Well, as it happens, Gerwig hasn’t fallen in line with a studio, she’s made a studio fall in line with her.
The film opens by explaining the two worlds which live side by side. On one hand, there is the real world, a sad, cynical and depressive place where people coldly navigate through their everyday troubles. On the other hand, is Barbie Land, a magical, colourful realm inhabited by living manifestations of Mattel’s branded Barbie and Ken dolls. Every Barbie and Ken in this world represents an actual toy from the real world, and all are fully aware of their status as anthropomorphic dolls. The main story follows the, ‘Stereotypical Barbie’ (Margot Robbie) and her ‘Stereotypical Ken’ (Ryan Gosling). While all the Barbies and all the Kens are happily enjoying their seemingly perfect, matriarchal society, our main Barbie starts to experience depression and fear of death. In order to find out what is wrong with her, Barbie needs to venture into the real world and find her real life owner, as their anxieties may be the cause. Wanting to be by her side, Ken accompanies her, only to be overjoyed when he discovers the existence of the patriarchy. However, Barbie couldn’t be more shocked by the systemic sexism of the real world, which only adds to her existential dread.
Given that Barbie as a brand, is simply a doll meant for young girls, many will likely be surprised to find that a film about Barbie is so entrenched in an analysis of gender roles. While unexpected, it certainly elevates the film to heights far above the inconsequential fluff it could’ve been. Some might think it’s inappropriate to front load a family film with such heavy subject matter, but Barbie handles its overt philosophical and social complexities as gracefully as the Toy Story films. Therefore, the film is still very much suitable for younger audiences, but the parents in the theatre will be just as glad they came, given they are receiving a story with extreme levels of nuance, a mature perspective and a thoughtful moral message. Therefore, it’s likely that generations of children will love the film for its colours and zaniness, but will be deeply moved by it when they grow up and watch it with an adult mind.
Obviously, the main thematic analysis is wrapped up in a discussion of feminism and femininity, which in this day and age can cause serious debate amongst viewers. Given that, some might not give the film a chance to arrive at its final message, as they will probably just accuse Barbie of hating men. However, this entirely misses the point, a point which the film eloquently makes. Barbie isn’t about shaming men (by the end it actually has a very positive and encouraging view of both men and women), but rather is about vocalising the lived experience of what women go through every day. Speaking as a man, the experience of watching Barbie made me sympathise with the opposite sex, as it illustrates certain things which I will never have to deal with, but that women have to contend with regularly. On an even grander level, the film manages to point out things I was never aware of, giving me a moment of pause, and making me consider certain truths I need to take note of moving forward.
While there’s certainly much to unpack regarding the film’s narrative layers, Barbie is still a marvellously enjoyable experience, as the comedy is brilliantly conceived. From the word go, the laughs come thick and fast, oscillating between slapstick, wit and self-awareness. Even if a joke here or there doesn’t land for you, it’s likely that the next will cause uncontrolled laughter, with the humour hitting almost all sides of the comedy spectrum. This may sound messy, yet it’s so carefully constructed that it feels right at home in Barbie’s zany universe. The only minor drawback is that some of the jokes keep Barbie firmly planted in 2023. If they’d kept it culturally neutral, there’d be nothing to potentially age the film in years to come. However, this is a minor complaint, given that Barbie rarely puts a foot wrong in every other major department.
This most notably refers to the film’s staggering production design, visual effects and camera work, all of which are simultaneously pushing boundaries, as well as returning us to classical filmmaking standards. Specifically, the Barbie Land sets are some of the best constructions you’ll see on screen all year. A lesser filmmaking team would’ve simply placed the action on a green screen, slapped in some boring computer generated background, and called it a day. Thankfully, Greta Gerwig doesn’t do half-measures, opting instead for fully built towns, all designed to look and feel like the toy houses Barbie dolls would occupy. There is of course some digital enhancement to the skyline, but the fact that you can’t tell which element is digital and which is real, shows just how strongly integrated it all is. If the Barbie Land sets are still standing, the studio would be really shortsighted to not use it as a tourist attraction.
As with every other successful element of the film, Barbie has a phenomenal cast including Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Kate McKinnon, Simu Liu, Issa Rae, Alexandra Shipp, Emma Mackey, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ncuti Gatwa, America Ferrera, Michael Cera, Connor Swindells, Emerald Fennell, Will Ferrell, Helen Mirren, Rhea Perlman, John Cena, Dua Lipa and many more. In a way, this massively impressive roster proves how much passion Greta Gerwig inspires throughout the industry. Even if they are only on screen for a handful of moments, every performer is clearly having the best time, and that enjoyment is infectious. With all this talent on display, it was up to our main Barbie and Ken, Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, to bring their absolute A-Game. Thankfully, both actors are perfectly suited to their characters every need, whether that be dramatic, comedic, silly or thoughtful.
In a world where even the original films are still brand names, it’s hard to ever believe that we’ll see truly creative visions. Thankfully, Greta Gerwig has proven that you can make a fun, funny, nuanced, introspective and unique film out of virtually any subject matter. The fact that she has managed to make Barbie an enjoyable experience, while also reminding us that no one needs to lives in another person’s shadow, is just icing on the cake.
Best way to watch it: In a double feature with Oppenheimer (2023) of course.