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Barbie review: Unapologetic, incandescent and bubblegum-pink

By Ansharah Shakil, August 9 2023—

“In the beginning,” said the narrator in Greta Gerwig’s latest film Barbie, released July 21, “there was Barbie.” And before Barbie, there was a series of Barbie animated films, vlogs, shows and a line of dolls that stretched back to 1959, when Ruth Handler created the first Barbie doll. 

The first live-action Barbie movie, written by director Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, is a breath of fresh air from a recent cinematic drone of sequels and adaptations. Just like Barbie has been a cultural icon for years, her movie was a legend before it came out, as soon as on-set pictures surfaced in 2022. Since then, there’s been one question for everyone excited for the film: what is Barbie even about?

Barbie (Margot Robbie) lives happily in Barbieland alongside Ken (Ryan Gosling). Her world includes Kens — plus Allan (Michael Cera in a literally perfect performance) — but is run by Barbies, who are everything from doctors to political leaders to a mermaid Barbie played by Dua Lipa. Barbieland is perfect, and Robbie’s Barbie is perfect, too — until she isn’t. To discover why there are imperfections in her perfect existence, Barbie travels to the real world with Ken, where she evades capture by Mattel while Ken brings patriarchal notions to Barbieland. Mother-daughter duo Gloria (America Ferrera) — a Mattel assistant responsible for Barbie’s existential crisis — and Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) — a precocious and snarky teenager — team up with Barbie to restore Barbieland.

Robbie’s physicality as a doll is gracefully gorgeous, and she plays Barbie’s bubbliness and despair equally well. She longs to feel, to be alive even if it means eventual death. The first time a tear slips from Barbie’s cheek, she is doing one of the most human things possible: sitting in the park, people-watching, laughing at sights of love, crying at sights of loneliness. It’s a perfect scene. 

Another perfect scene is Barbie’s escape from Mattel Headquarters to Charli XCX’s “Speed Drive” — maybe the best song from the excellent soundtrack — which ends with her team-up with Gloria and Sasha. After all, the heart of this movie is its relationships between women. Barbie’s friendships with her fellow dolls, her encounter with an old woman she calls beautiful and with her creator, are deeply layered and moving. So is Gloria and Sasha’s clear, complicated love for each other. 

The Bratz easter eggs for Sasha, who’s called “Bunny Boo-boo” by her mother and whose friends look like the Bratz dolls, bring to mind the Bratz live-action movie. Barbie has more heart, a better plot and cast. Bratz has none of that but feels less like a promotion than Barbie does. Barbie’s jokes poked at Mattel are hilarious, but the profits Mattel is going to rake in here cancels out the fun had at their expense. 

While the movie acknowledges this, as it criticizes the unhealthy body standards Barbie has had, it does so only briefly. It feels like Gerwig hasn’t seen the Barbie movies that preceded hers, or at least she didn’t think they were important to her story. But they are, because like hers, they were backed by Mattel and criticized for only existing to sell dolls. Like hers, they have unexpected depth and emotion. 

Gerwig doesn’t reference the animated movies — not a single magic pegasus is to be found — or the TV show Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse (Racquelle is missing), but in some ways the latter did it better. It also explored Barbie’s life as a doll, and Ken had a brief identity crisis, only to decide that being Barbie’s boyfriend was enough for him. In Barbie, Ken resents Barbie for putting him in the “friend zone,” while Barbie doesn’t seem to care about him much. It’s a disappointing route to take when the two are usually a team, whether together romantically or not. While I can see the merits in the Kens’ plotline, the execution is messy. 

Still, Barbie is original and heartwarming, a fantastical experience of whimsicality and creativity with stunning set and costume design and moments that make you laugh and cry. Theatres have been filled with crowds decked out in pink and Google turns the whole website pink when you search its title. There’s something loveable about the movie, even with its faults, which is the entire point of Barbie’s journey throughout the movie: to want something despite its imperfections and to love more for the sake of the flaws.

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