You’ve gotta hand it to writer-director Greta Gerwig: she found a smart initial approach to her subject in Barbie. The opening of her film about Mattel’s famously/infamously boobacious doll — brought to you by Mattel partnering with Warner Brothers — is clever and funny. It borrows its ironically grandiose scope from 2001: A Space Odyssey, plus the opening line of ten trillion bad student essays, “Since the beginning of time,” to establish that, before the coming of Barbie, little girls through the ages were stuck with primitive baby dolls with which they could do little but play at mothering. And whereas being a mother can be fun “for a while,” intones narrator Helen Mirren, it soon palls.
“Just ask your mother,” she says severely.
Then a gigantic Original Barbie appears before a gaggle of slack-jawed little girls, tall and iconic as an Easter Island moai statue in her dynamic strapless black-and-white-striped bathing suit accessorized with white cat-eye sunglasses and those perpetual high heels. Glamorous, minxy adult fun is the promise of Original Barbie, the phenomenally popular 1959 version designed by Ruth Handler, one of three cofounders of Mattel along with her husband and business partner, Elliot, and Harold “Matt” Matson. (Note the combo of “Matt” and “Elliot” to create the company name, with no room for Ruth’s.)
They were quintessential World War II–era entrepreneurs, starting off in the late 1930s with the new plastics Lucite and plexiglass, the latter used extensively in wartime aircraft and submarine building, to create innovative furniture products. From there they segued into the booming 1940s toy market.
Barbie was named after the Handlers’ daughter, Barbara, as the film’s motherly version of Ruth Handler, played by Rhea Perlman, explains later in the film. (The Ken doll was named after their son, Ken, but as Will Ferrell’s Mattel CEO character points out, “We never care about Ken.”) What’s not mentioned is the well-known fact that Barbie was actually a redesign of a far racier 1955 German doll Ruth Handler discovered called Bild Lilli, a character originating in a comic strip featured in the sensationalistic right-wing tabloid paper Bild.
Lilli was a witty, sexy call girl living off the largesse of an assortment of male suitors, known for her chic clothing that made her “the star of every bar.” The doll, like her Barbie derivative, came with assorted high-fashion outfits and accessories and was initially an adult gag gift considered unsuitable for children, until she was adapted for kids in Germany and optioned for manufacture in other countries as well.
The original Barbie’s black hair, heavy eyeliner, and blue eyeshadow gave her a darker nighttime edge that harkened back to some of the qualities associated with Bild Lilli, but there’s no way Mattel was going to let that backstory appear in the film. Gerwig opts to make her a blander, beachier, more sanitized blonde in keeping with the “Stereotypical Barbie” of later models, whom Margot Robbie plays very well throughout.
Gerwig’s long, inventive introductory sequence brings us up to date in Barbieland, where hundreds of different models of the doll developed over the decades live together in pink plastic paradise, cavorting in Barbie’s Dreamhouse, where “every night is girls’ night,” but also running everything in a society built for them. There’s now a Barbie for every profession, remember — Teacher Barbie, Doctor Barbie, Construction Worker Barbie, Supreme Court Justice Barbie, President Barbie.
The male doll characters attendant on Barbie, led by Original Ken (Ryan Gosling), the smooth, tan, blond, boring, genital-free beach boy, plus all the other, later Kens — played by Simu Liu and a host of other handsome actors breaking into amusingly choreographed dances all over the brightly colored fake landscape — know their place in a Barbie-centered world. They live nowhere, mainly hanging out by the stiff plastic waves always about to roll into shore in Barbieland, and Ken considers it his job “to beach.” The Kens occasionally express their rivalry for Barbie’s attention and their frustrations with their lowly place in society in a confused sexual way by threatening to “beach each other off.”
Then, suddenly, in the midst of disco dancing in Barbie’s Dreamhouse on Girls’ Night as usual, ecstatically smiling Barbie says to her equally ecstatically smiling friends, “Do you ever think about dying?”
Well, it’s pretty damn good, that moment.
It makes perfect sense of the delightful “Barbenheimer” phenomenon, all those memes and mock posters combining Oppenheimer and Barbie, inspired by their seemingly incongruous same-day summer opening. For example, a pink and grinning shot of Barbie’s face, over which appears Oppenheimer’s famous line when the atom test demonstrated its appalling mass-destructive might: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
“Will I understand Oppenheimer if I haven’t seen Barbie first?” queries another great one, demonstrating the instant intuition everyone had that, beneath the extremity of their superficial contrasts, one American Cold War–era saga had a lot to do with the other — Barbie and the Bomb. One all sunny, consumerist denial of what we made of our superpower ascent over the postwar world, one the stark horror of the reality of what we’d done.
If all of Barbie could’ve somehow sustained the frisson of that moment, it would’ve been one for the ages. It couldn’t, of course. There’s a long explanation of how a somehow-animated plastic doll could be thinking about death, the first of many tedious attempts in the narrative to make sense of something that can never make literal-minded sense, just perfect emotional sense. It seems that each doll in Barbieland is tied to a human girl who plays with the doll in the Real World — America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt are the estranged mother and teenage daughter who both once played with Stereotypical Barbie. Somehow the existential angst of the mother, and her drawings of Intrusive Thoughts of Death Barbie, have opened a portal into Barbie’s world, the result of which is Barbie developing human qualities.
Still, this cumbersome plotting provides liftoff for the enjoyable spectacle of what might be called Distressingly Human Barbie. She wakes up groggy, with bad breath, and instead of wafting down from the upper floor of her Dreamhouse as she had every other morning, she falls with a clumsy smack. She’s got cellulite and flat hair. Worst of all, her famous high-heel-shaped feet have lost their insane arch and gone completely flat, causing all the other Barbies to scream in horror. (“I would never wear heels if my feet were shaped like this!” she exclaims.)
Barbie consults the reclusive Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) about what to do. She’s what happens when girls play too rough with their Barbies, chopping their hair off, drawing on their faces with marker, and putting them into permanent, painful-looking splits. Weird Barbie offers Stereotypical Barbie a Matrix-like red pill vs. blue pill choice in the form of pink spike heels vs. Birkenstocks — forgetting everything and going back to the way things were or finding out the truth. Barbie says pink heels all day, but of course, it’s not a real option. Barbie must go visit uncongenial reality in order to set things right.
Early on, Barbie’s trip to the Real World — with cluelessly devoted Ken along for the ride — maintains a certain level of delight. Though Los Angeles would seem like the ideal plastic place for them to land, in their matching Day-Glo-colored rollerblading ensembles, Barbie’s shocked reactions to the harsher realities she encounters (starting with sexual harassment) carry the film along for a while. She’s regarded by Gen Z teenage girls who despise her as a grotesquely outdated representation of regressive values, especially given the still absurdly oppressive patriarchal cruelties all around them. Meanwhile, finding himself in a male-dominated society for the first time, Ken is dazzled by the possibilities of patriarchy and rushes back to Barbieland to turn it into Kendom, culminating in a highly topical plan to take over the Supreme Court and rewrite the Constitution.
Finally, Barbie is swooped into an unmarked vehicle and escorted to Mattel’s corporate headquarters. There Barbie discovers that in the Real World, even Mattel is run by men, and Will Ferrell’s daffy but cold-eyed CEO just wants her to “get back in the box.” Her flight from Mattel moves the film into an increasingly confused, convoluted, heavy-handed attempt to work out the plot and deliver what some combination of Gerwig and Mattel consider the proper messages. There’s the familiar, toothless, you-go-girl pseudo-feminist pieties that Mattel has been monetizing for decades, alongside the nostalgic how-can-our-consumer-products-be-bad affirmations of Barbie as some sort of magic, wholesomely progressive uniter of generations of mothers and daughters.
That’s too bad, but perhaps it’s amazing that the film manages to be as good as it is in many parts. After all, it’s ultimately another grotesque, high-profile, yay-for-capitalism intellectual property movie celebrating successful products like Air, Tetris, BlackBerry, and Flamin’ Hot (Cheetos) — all released in 2023(!). And Mattel is threatening us with many more films built around their toys, like Hot Wheels, Magic 8 Ball, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, Chatty Cathy, and Betsy Wetsy.
But when it comes to picking a team, if the choice is Team Oppenheimer or Team Barbie, I know I’m on Team Barbie, for the opening sequence and the already beloved “I’m Just Ken” musical number alone. (“Is it my destiny to live and die a life of blond fragility?”) That’s for sure at least.
It’s a strange thing, the booming, record-setting success of Barbie and Oppenheimer, touted as saving the film industry just at a time when the major WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike is threatening to bring Hollywood to a standstill.
If there had been a serious boycott of these movies, maybe it would’ve forced the industry to a crisis point that led to a decent deal for screenwriters and actors, forestalling a ghastlier cinematic future. On another hand, the American film industry has been foundering so long in terms of making interesting films, it’s sometimes questionable whether it’s worth saving at all.
Still, we’re used to having nothing but bad choices. Seems like it’s forever pink high heels or Birkenstocks, with maybe Crocs as a third option. But even if you have only a fading love of the great Hollywood era of genre movies, you can’t help feeling a bit of a thrill to have something happening in popular films at last.