Never in a million years would I have imagined Greta Gerwig, of all people, ends up directing a ‘Barbie’ movie. It also marked the first time we get a live-action movie adaptation after over 20 years of straight-to-media computer-animated/CGI films. The Barbie fashion dolls, of course, are one of the most popular Mattel line-ups that have empowered and entertained generations of girls of different age groups for over 60 years since making their debut in 1959.
Come to think of it; it actually made sense to have Greta Gerwig on board, given her relevant experience in exploring female empowerment and coming-of-age subject matters seen in ‘Lady Bird’ and the 2019 remake of ‘Little Women’, both of which carry the themes that fit well with the ‘Barbie’ brand.
Not to mention it was interesting to see an acclaimed indie filmmaker like Gerwig handling a big-budget studio movie like ‘Barbie,’ which reportedly cost around US$145 million to make – a considerable sum for a fantasy-comedy genre and, frankly, a risky undertaking despite its global brand recognition and starry talents onscreen and behind the cameras.
But first, the plot: We learn that Barbie (Margot Robbie) has been living a picture-perfect life in the pink haven of Barbie Land. And so do her fellow Barbies (among them played by Emma Mackey, Alexandra Shipp, and Hari Nef) in the surrounding neighborhood.
They would happily greet each other and have fun dancing at the parties. The rosy-colored world of Barbie wouldn’t be complete without the male presence of Kens, particularly Ryan Gosling and Simu Liu’s portrayals as the two opposing suitors vying for Barbie’s attention.
Then, one day, something seems off. Barbie wakes up in the morning, as usual, looking and feeling different. She started to notice her physical flaws, including suffering from a cellulite problem and having flat feet. She even thought about death and other existential questions that had never occurred before in her otherwise all-consummate life. The sudden imperfections that apparently come out of nowhere prompted Barbie to meet the “Weird Barbie” played by Kate McKinnon.
Long story short, it concerns Barbie’s self-discovery, leading her to travel to the real world for the first time. Although she determines to do this all by herself, Ryan Gosling’s Ken unexpectedly joins the ride. But once they are in the real world, everything looks contrary to what they have back in Barbie Land. The humans, as expected, are depicted as judgmental and flawed beings — a polar opposite from the superficial nature of Barbies and Kens.
‘Barbie’ gets off to a promising start, complete with Helen Mirren’s wonderful and condescending voiceover who narrated the story. Gerwig’s attention to detail, with the help of Sarah Greenwood’s vibrant production design and Jacqueline Durran’s swanky costume design, successfully captures the striking look and feel of Barbie Land. Not to forget, the full-size Dreamhouse sets come to vivid life, showcasing Gerwig’s flair for sparkling visuals while making good use of the famous Mattel brand’s iconic pink color.
The movie also boasts the inspired casting choice of Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. The former is certainly born to play the role of a bimbo as she nails the skin-deep personality of a stereotypical Barbie.
But given the fact this movie has Gerwig calling the shots, the story delves deeper into Robbie’s role as we witness her subsequent journey in discovering her true self in the real world. At least on paper, it was a nice move to depict Robbie’s Barbie as more than just a typical one-dimensional fashion figure.
Gosling, in turn, steals the show as Ken, whose perfectly wooden-faced charisma made him the perfect fit as the shallow-minded male counterpart. He plays it straight as he embraces his character wholeheartedly.
Gerwig’s exploration of Barbie’s coming-of-age journey, which allows her to slip into ever-topical commentaries related to the likes of feminism, individuality, societal expectations, and gender stereotypes, has all the making of a potentially profound cinematic experience.
The story, which she co-wrote alongside her longtime partner Noah Baumbach, clearly wanted to stretch ‘Barbie’ beyond its surface-level storytelling of ‘Barbie and Ken find themselves in a fish-out-of-water comedy scenario.’ Don’t get me wrong, the scenes of them facing the unfamiliar territory of the real world are all here as hinted in the trailers. But only to a certain extent, with the expected comedy only a few and far between, since Gerwig and Baumbach are more interested in piling the movie with all the thematic perspectives.
In other words, if you expect ‘Barbie’ to be solely a lightweight and fun fantasy-comedy adventure, you’re in for a surprise. A surprise that can be a double-edged sword since Gerwig wants to have it both ways: a widely-recognizable IP of a big-budget summer movie tentpole laced with the depth of thought-provoking themes.
I wish she could strike the right balance between the two, and as much as I appreciate her bold attempt to make a mainstream summer blockbuster with an indie sensibility, ‘Barbie’ turns out to be a heavy-handed affair.
I get the intention of the movie spreading the messages that wanted to course-correct the ‘Barbie’ brand in the otherwise negative light of the controversial consumerism and unrealistic body proportions. But does it have to be this preachy? Considering the massive hype that has been built upon leading to this week’s release of ‘Barbie,’ I have to say this is a missed opportunity and among the most divisive movies I’ve ever come across so far in 2023.