As a boy that grew up in the 80’s, I had an embarrassment of riches when it came to toys. TMNT, Power Rangers, Transformers, original Star Wars, the list keeps going on and on. All manner of figurines to go to war with, save the day, or just expand my imagination. As such, I always felt a little badly for girls, who pretty much only had Barbie. I mean, what could a Barbie even do? Change suits? Be a doctor or a lawyer? It just didn’t seem fair. But if my childhood self knew what I know now after seeing the Barbie movie, he would realize that maybe little boys were the ones missing out after all.
First, a quick disclaimer. If you don’t want spoilers, stop reading soon. Because there’s no way I can talk about the Barbie movie without getting into the connective tissue of the premise. It’s so layered and nuanced that without talking about context, I can’t really explain my appreciation. Okay, ready? Let’s all head to Barbie Land!
After a brief introduction that comedically references 2001: A Space Odyssey, we learn about the alternate reality where all the Barbie dolls are real. And the Ken dolls. And Allan. While none of them are exactly what we would consider human (no genitals for one, and no need to eat or drink for another) they enjoy each day in peace and harmony. The Barbies are in charge, and represent a wide gamut of looks and personalities. They’re the judges, lawyers, construction workers and everything you could think of. They do hard work during the day, and party all night. What do the Kens do, you ask? Mostly stand there looking pretty, showing off their muscles, and yearning for acknowledgment from the Barbies. Most especially the Ken played by Ryan Gosling.
It’s clear early on that he loves Margot Robbie’s Barbie, considered the stereotypical version of the doll. Unfortunately for him, that love is unrequited. Which is only exacerbated by the bullying he receives from Simu Liu’s Ken, who seems to live to torture Gosling with harsh, but often honest, words. And constant threats of “beaching him off” (you’ve all seen the trailers by now, and yes it’s hilarious).
Regardless of Ken’s suffering, everything is coming up Barbie. Until Barbie is suddenly overwhelmed by existential dread and the inexplicable fear of death. It’s so shocking, it breaks up a snazzy musical number, with Barbie awkwardly shrugging it off. And then she wakes up the next day, only for her perfectly perky feet to go shockingly flat. Which makes it much harder to wear heels, and sends her into a full blown panic. The only solution? Go and consult the ominous Weird Barbie.
I’ll admit, Weird Barbie is a big part of the reason I saw the movie. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Margot Robbie and she’s very easy to look at, but I love me some Kate McKinnon. She plays the Barbie doll that got played with a little too hard. Now she’s constantly doing the splits and has rough-cut hair, all sorts of colored marks on her face, and a freaky plastic dog that walks around pooping eggs everywhere. In essence, she’s the Baba Yaga of the Barbieverse. Since she has some mileage on her, she realizes that Robbie has feelings bleeding into her from a human girl that’s playing with her in the real world. So she’ll need to head into that dangerous wilderness via a travel montage of pink-colored vehicles. Then she can find the girl, help her, and get everything back to normal.
It’s not a bad plan, but it immediately gets complicated by Gosling playing stowaway. Once they both arrive in the real world, things change dramatically. Suddenly, Barbie isn’t the only one getting attention. Sure, they both get ogled on Venice Beach, but Ken is realizing that on Earth, men are the ones in charge. Muscled doofus that he is, he’s overjoyed. Some quick research backs up his findings, and he learns about the Patriarchy. And let’s be honest, it needs to be capitalized. Because it’s not only a toxic system of gender-based preference, but it becomes an infectious agent later in the movie.
At first Barbie, as a result of zen mind meld, thinks she’s found the source of her troubles, and goes to talk with a young girl named Sasha in school. She naively thinks the girl will thank her for helping serve as a role model and making the world a better place. Instead, Sasha dresses Barbie down and ends by calling her a fascist. This on top of Barbie and Ken hilariously getting arrested twice earlier for lack of understanding how things like payment for clothing works. And then the Mattel mafia arrives to capture Barbie and box her up.
Part of the hilarity in the movie is the constant humor permeating every little scene. Things that just don’t make sense, like a company known for selling dolls to girls being entirely run by old men. Best of all, the guy in charge is played by Will Ferrell. He summons a lot of his trademark manic energy, and is equal parts egotistical and ridiculous. For a while, I seriously thought he was some escaped toy that took root in the real world. But in the movie, he’s mostly comic relief. You’d think he’s the villain, but it turns out the real villain in the movie is actually Gosling’s Ken.
With the help of America Ferrera’s Gloria, Sasha’s mother who was actually the person playing with Robbie’s doll, Barbie escapes from Mattel and heads back to the safety of Barbie Land. There’s just one problem. Ken got there first, and armed with knowledge of the Patriarchy, he’s turned everything upside down. Now, instead of Dream Houses the Kens all live in Mojo Dojo Casa Houses. Worse, all the Barbies that remained behind have been brainwashed, and now dote on everything the idiots say, while dutifully brining them brewskies from their mini fridges. It’s a dude bro paradise, and it’s threatening to destroy everything Barbie has ever known. It’s even bleeding into the real world, and sales of Ken-related merchandise are going through the roof.
Further complicating things, in a couple days the Barbie Land Supreme Court, now run entirely by Kens, is planning to overturn the constitution (yes, Barbie Land has a constitution). While it’s a delightfully silly premise, it’s also a bit of a dark reflection of our own political situation in the United States. Barbie has a breakdown at her lack of agency and power in this topsy turvy situation. Then Gloria delivers an amazing monologue about the complexities and contradictions of being a woman in a male-controlled society. It’s verbose, poignant, and at the end, most of the theater I was in was clapping. Best of all, this profound dive into reality helps wake up one of the Barbies that’s been brainwashed. Which leads to a plan to free the Barbies and distract the Kens so the constitution can be saved. The movie ends with Barbie literally meeting her maker, and getting a chance to be something more than just a doll.
It’s all surprisingly poignant and full of heart, as well as being comedic gold. There’s an embarrassment of amazing actors as well, from Michael Cera as Ken’s friend, Allan, to Helen Mirren as the whip-smart narrator and Issa Rae as President Barbie. Perhaps my favorite sequence in the movie is when the Kens go to war against each other, which devolves into a snazzy musical number.
Barbie really could have been a barebones, boring movie. But Greta Gerwig somehow made it not only relevant, but a broad examination of what it means to be a woman. As well as how reality and fiction are entangled, and can impact each other. Hell, she even does an impeccable job of showing what toxic masculinity looks like with humor, as well as showing the healthy opposite, represented primarily by Michael Cera. I had no expectations for the movie, but I came away profoundly impressed. If you’re a fan of cinema, go watch it in the theater. And hopefully the real world can start to mirror Barbie Land a bit more.