Film review: Barbie

Hello, dolly! Barbie’s here, and she’s made the funniest, funnest emotional rollercoaster of the year…

Film review: Barbie
Nick Ruskell

Currently, if you Google the word Barbie, the page turns pink and sparkles with stars. At the box office, presale demand is such that the movie is expected to match its $100 million budget on its opening weekend. Over the next couple of years, its effect is estimated to add $14 billion to the doll industry. Before the film has even properly hit the screen, Barbie is already queen of the movies.

It’s almost too perfect. Which is apt, as that’s the problem Barbie’s having. In lovely Barbieland, where massively successful Barbies run everything, achieve to the highest level, lift one another up and never get pissed off about anything (because there is nothing at which to be pissed off), every day is wonderful. It’s all dazzling smiles, beautiful weather, cool outfits, cooler cars, living in your Dream House, hanging out at the beach with Ken in the day and having sleepovers at night with your wonderful friends. Nothing goes wrong, ever. It’s perfect. And very pink.

And then Barbie – the Barbie played by Margot Robbie – wakes up one morning and everything’s off. Breakfast isn’t right. She falls out of her house rather than gliding down as if being lifted by an invisible hand. She’s started having dark thoughts about death. Just as worryingly, her feet become, rather than their usual high-heel-perfect tip-toe, flat.

This leads to a trip to see Weird Barbie, a wise, Yoda type who sports the physical and mental peculiarities that come from being played with by an over-enthusiastic and differently creative owner, who explains that whoever’s playing with main Barbie is having A Bad One. So begins a trip to reality to find out what’s going on. With stowaway Ken (the one played by Ryan Gosling – they’re all called Ken, except the dork played by Michael Cera, who’s called Allan) in tow, the pair have very different revelations that will massively reverberate in Barbieland.

It’s an absolute scream. Barbieland is astoundingly realised, down to the tiniest detail. There is Barbie lore and references absolutely everywhere, as well as perfect and hilarious observations that you never thought of before. Margot Robbie – wearing many hats, both figurative and literal – perfectly slides between all of the story’s demands on her character, as well as near-constant delivery of one-liners. There’s an embarrassment of observational gold, and the gags – from the sensational campness of Barbieland, to the more subtle, easily missed zingers – are pitched to perfection.

It’s also unexpectedly deep at points. Through her and Ken’s individual journeys, as they become more self-aware and diverge down different paths, Barbie (the film) examines its subject in a way that doesn’t rankle with the moments of piss-yourself hilarity, while undoing a knot of questions in a brilliantly non-lecture-y way.

Barbie's shocked by her own discoveries as she gets more involved in a world much more heteronormative than her own. Not least that when she asks to speak to the woman in charge at Mattel, she's told no. Because there aren't any (although there were a couple in the past). When she talks to a bunch of builders, she can't work out why they're so lewd. And so on.

Director Greta Gerwig pokes and prods around questions of the doll’s legitimacy as a role model and an aspirational figure as if actually trying to find an answer. Barbie's shortcomings are highlighted – how can she be a rounded, adjusted person if she’s never cried? How are you supposed to react to learning that not everyone likes you? What if you’re just not cut out to be an aspirational bad-ass, or a pilot, or President, and don’t really want to be? – again, as if to have a genuine go at solving the puzzle of who Barbie actually is and what her strengths truly are. The same goes for the question of how the relevance and meaning of an idea for a toy born in the 1950s can change.

For Ken, the trip to the real world leads him to learn about a cool idea called ‘patriarchy’. Reading up on the subject he decides, with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a teenage boy realising what his bits are for, that this idea, along with "horses", is how to run things properly. His return to his own plane of reality, where he takes on the role of a (perfectly inept) Men’s Rights Activist douche (with a very, very sly and very, very funny choice of music just in the background if you listen hard enough), is a disaster. The rise of the Kens, and their plan to make the Barbies subservient and second class, is astutely observed in a time where young men increasingly look to figures espousing such views for guidance. In the end, there's a war between Kens, the reasons for which none of them properly understand. Also lots of mansplaining, a petard on which they are eventually hoist.

If it sounds heavy, it isn’t. It’s all delivered in a vessel that’s one of the funniest, silliest and, ultimately, most uplifting things you’ll see all year. The ridiculous set-pieces – like the journeys from Barbieland into the real world – are inspired. Every joke, from gleaming funny to sharp put-down, is perfectly placed, as are unexpected but LOL-some nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix among others (is Barbie Neo and Ken Agent Smith?). Mark Ronson’s soundtrack is a banger. The comedy is a riot and the more poignant moments fit with it perfectly, particularly the conclusion where Barbie (the Margot Robbie one), finally scratches the itch and finds what will actually make her content.

For all the lead-up and hype, it’s been hard to guess what you’re going to get from Barbie. Being a proper gas was always on the cards. That it’s tenderly existential and articulately vocal in its messaging is a welcome surprise. Come on, Barbie, let's go down the cinema and watch a movie about you.

Verdict: 4/5

Barbie is released on July 21

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