In Barbie Land, Barbie (Margot Robbie) and her posse (Issa Rae, Dua Lipa, Alexandra Shipp) run the queendom. Her boy toy Ken (Ryan Gosling) and his clones (Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ncuti Gatwa, John Cena) don’t.
The young women are proud to be presidents, astronauts and executives. Why wouldn’t they? They assume their success has been witnessed by girls and ladies in the real world and that they are role models worthy of emulation. That’s true, in part. However, unbeknownst to them, their impossibly trim physiques have caused females to experience body shame. Why? Because no one on earth has a figure like Barbie.
With a gleam in her eye, writer/director Greta Gerwig explores the pros and cons of the doll’s influence and how she and her makers (Mattel) got some things wrong and some things right. When Barbie starts having alternate thoughts and expresses weird feelings that are not in the Barbie manual, she and her followers question the meaning of life: “You guys ever think about dying.” Say what?
The feminist script makes no secret of its ambitions. Girl power or bust. The humor is chuckle-worthy but not steadily hilarious (Joy Ride). The plotline (co-writers Gerwig and Noah Baumbach), zany neon pink production design (Sarah Greenwood), campy mini-me costumes (Jacqueline Durran) and a powerhouse soundtrack (Lizzo, Tame Impala and Khalid) carry this doll world parable for 2h 42 (editor Nick Houy, Little Women).
Long enough to get the point across. Long-winded enough to possibly test the patience of tweens and teens. A target audience who may not understand all they’re seeing and just want to have fun. Initial song-and-dance scenes are exhilarating but run out of steam and it takes a while for Barbie’s quest to identify itself and start her on the road to self-discovery. Patience is required, but there is a payoff.
Robbie is a trooper, and her character has the best outcome. Gosling plays a dumb, self-absorbed airhead in a way that makes him and his delirium the most fun to watch. He and the Kens peak in a dance-off scene dressed in black clothes and loafers on a bright pink and blue dance floor with white stripes. If there is a “Clown of the Year” award, Gosling is a shoe-in. That or a Golden Globe for Best Actor in the Comedy or Musical category would be a just reward. America Ferrera, Kate McKinnon, Michael Cera and Issa Rae also find the right groove.
Gerwig’s glee as a director is evident. Cars flipping over. Scenes that look like storybook pages. Houses with no walls. Beach body Kens who can’t swim. Corporate execs who tend to the bottom line and overprotect their money-making, superstar doll. Glimpses of the real world where women kings don’t rule. It’s a lot to take in, and some skits work better than others. But if you consider this movie to be a package deal, the package is wrapped nice and tight—but not perfectly.
If what’s on the screen further helps girls and women to see themselves as a community with needs, power and a voice, then this fable with its Pepto Bismol-colored surroundings has been worth the effort. The most touching moment, the one that grounds everything you see, is when the inventor of the doll, Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), explains the complicated task of women being role models for younger generations:
“We mothers stand still so our daughters can see how far they’ve come.”
If Barbie stops being “blonde” long enough to heed her inventor’s wisdom, she will understand her responsibility and place in history. She effects young impressionable girls in the real world. She has to step up.