BARBIE – Review by Valerie Kalfrin

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Like the doll’s copious wardrobe and accessories, the movie Barbie leaves lots to unpack—and probably more than people might expect. This funny, eye-catching film sports pitch-perfect performances from Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, paying tribute to the iconic toy while skewering the patriarchy and feminist window-dressing. It’s also a coming-of-age story about Barbie herself.

From the moment Robbie (Asteroid City) appears dressed in Barbie’s 1959 black and white bathing suit, towering like the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey over little girls bored with playing mommy to baby dolls, it’s clear Barbie has tall ambitions.

The doll herself doesn’t, though. Like all the other Barbies in the pastel and hot-pink fantasy world of Barbieland, Robbie’s Barbie believes that because Barbie can be anything, girls in the real world can, too. Sexism solved!

Well, until Barbie has an existential crisis.

Director Greta Gerwig, known for women-focused films such as Lady Bird and Little Women, takes us from Barbie’s frothy home to the Real World and back with pointed observations and a third-act dreamlike sequence of surprising poignancy. While the film has some basic “girl power” ideas, it also has thought-provoking moments beneath its shiny pink packaging.

The film first establishes Barbie’s world in meticulous detail, complete with the painted backdrops and choreography of classic musicals. Production designer Sarah Greenwood, set decorators Katie Spencer and Ashley Swanson, and Oscar-winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran bring the Dreamhouse and coordinated outfits to amusing life as Barbie “showers” without water, drinks from empty cups, and floats from her roof into a cute pink convertible.

Each Barbie has a job, from President (Issa Rae of A Black Lady Sketch Show, wearing a beauty pageant “President” sash with every outfit) to Supreme Court Justice, award-winning author to brilliant doctor to astronaut. (“Yay, space!” Robbie’s Barbie says, waving at the sky.)

The Kens, meanwhile, hang out at the beach, hoping to catch the girls’ attention. “Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him,” intones Helen Mirren as the droll occasional narrator. Gosling (The Gray Man) is a Ken who is especially lovelorn, a weakness that the cocky Ken played by Simu Liu (One True Loves) is happy to exploit.

Barbie’s perfect day hits a hilarious needle scratch during a peppy Dua Lipa-fueled dance party when she asks, “Do you guys ever think about dying?” The next morning, the fake milk in the fridge has expired, her heart-shaped waffle has burned, and she falls off the roof, horrified to discover that her arched feet have gone flat.

The other dolls urge her to visit Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live), who wears crayon-scrawl makeup and a homemade haircut. She thinks now-Existential Barbie is malfunctioning because of whatever the Real World girl playing with her is doing. Find her, and you’ll get your perfect life back, she says.

Soon, Robbie’s Barbie and Gosling’s stowaway Ken are on the move, taking a variety of Mattel vehicles to reach the barrier between their world and Los Angeles. There, Barbie feels “conscious, but it’s myself I’m conscious of,” right before a guy slaps her behind.

Yet Ken feels seen and respected. Soon, he’s basking in male-heavy advertisements and admiring pictures of Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Sylvester Stallone. “Men run the world!” he says.

The latter half of the film follows Mattel execs led by Will Ferrell (Spirited) plotting to put Barbie back in a box while Ken and Barbieland have a whole other crisis. Barbie struggles with reality not matching her expectations, stirring empathy in another Mattel employee (America Ferrara, Superstore) who takes her jaded teen daughter (Ariana Greenblatt, 65) along to help the doll.

The script by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach (White Noise), Gerwig’s real-life partner, has some barbed lines, such as when Ferrell’s exec tells the all-male Mattel brass: “When you think of sparkle, what do you think of after that? Female agency!”

Yet Barbie [ital] also tries to have its cake and eat it too. One character makes Barbie cry, noting how she’s represented “sexualized capitalism,” setting the feminist movement back decades. Yet the film has tie-in merchandise from makeup to toys, clothing, and home decor that companies are banking we’ll buy.

And while Barbieland is diverse, with different races and body types, it falls short in incorporating characters with disabilities, which the toy line now includes. The film shows two Barbies who use wheelchairs but disappear within seconds. Is Barbieland not wheelchair-accessible?

Fortunately, Robbie and Gosling sell the humor and the nuance. Robbie plays Barbie as innocent and guileless; she’s endearing, making her disappointment and confusion hit hard. Gosling’s Ken is more childish and petulant, but he’s also hurt, leading to a relatively mature conversation about their relationship.

One character’s monologue about the contradictions of womanhood brings to mind Jo’s rant in Gerwig’s film Little Women, but it also strikes a chord, and with Barbie as well. At one point, she feels not good enough for anything, leading to a choice with real agency and a pensive tune from Billie Eilish that asks, “What was I made for?”

That’s a relatable question, giving Barbie depth beyond her molded heels—and encouraging viewers to strive not for perfection but to do better.

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at RogerEbert.com, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.