has its fake plastic cake and eats it too. When the first note of Lizzo's "Pink" drops accompanying the reveal of production designer Sarah Greenwood's "Barbieland" as these real-life dolls dressed in Jacqueline Durran‘s wardrobe descend from their Dreamhouses there is a sense that what we, the audience and spectator, are being welcomed into are images and feelings that possess an equal amount of simplicity and elegance. There is the immediate sense of influence in that one can easily see images and references from this movie integrating themselves into the culture; stills painted in Hollywood murals alongside classics like The Wizard of Oz or characters standing next to Marilyn Monroe. At the same time, there is an adventurous sense that one has no idea what they're truly getting themselves into or at least, where this movie might go both literally and thematically. By the final scene (or two) of the film it is clear this duality of simplicity and elegance is wholly intentional so that the film works on different levels for different audience members whether that be someone who currently plays with dolls, someone who once played with dolls, or even those who always felt too boxed in by expectation to either play with dolls themselves or at least acknowledge the appeal of them. 

Yes, this is a movie about a doll, but the “we’ll sell more toys” aspect didn’t bother or invade my experience because of how intelligently writer/director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, Little Women) uses this packaging to tell the story she and co-writer/life partner Noah Baumbach decided to tell or how it emphasizes the themes they wanted to explore and discuss. In addition to the levels and ideas (or levels of ideas), Barbie is also just a Technicolor fever dream of musical numbers and comedy bits that land with such frequency that even if your sympathy for Ken is maybe greater than it is for Barbie or even if Allan weirds you out a little bit (which we’ll get to) there is plenty here for all to enjoy if not hopefully (eventually) consider.

As an (almost) middle-aged male with no emotional or nostalgic connection to the Barbie brand I recognize I’m not the “target audience”, but I can’t help but feel this film was made just as much for the purposes of informing and enlightening me and those like me as it was to empower and highlight the women and young girls it was ostensibly made for. That is to say, Ryan Gosling’s Ken and his arc play a major role in the journey and arc of Margot Robbie’s Barbie; not all of it (Barbie couldn’t care less about Ken in any romantic sense), but more than I initially expected. While I am always happy to see Gosling play to his strengths a la his slapstick abilities and just as funny dry sense of humor that inform his line readings I half-expected his portrayal of Ken to be a crutch the movie would lean on in intervals strictly for said comic relief…it is not. 

A collecition of Barbies including Ana Cruz Kayne, Sharon Rooney, Alexandra Shipp, Margot Robbie, Hari Nef, and Emma Mackey are stunned at one Barbie's lack of heel.
Photo by Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture - © 2023 - Warner Bros

Again, as an (almost) middle-aged male I realize this is a very (almost) middle-aged male reading of the film, but this is just as much a journey of self-discovery for Ken as it is for Barbie and while I’m sure there are many viewers of my sex, age, and ethnicity that will be threatened by a movie sending a message of empowerment and self-discovery to women who hold positions outside of marriage and motherhood (I can’t believe I even have to type this still) it is also fascinating so many will fail to see themselves so strongly represented in a movie made for women. It would be easy to get into the weeds, but ultimately the structure of the ideas is, again, fairly simple in their elegance in that “Barbieland” posits a world that is the inverse of our own. This naturally gives rise to both very comedic and very affecting moments as Barbie and Ken each come to their own realizations about how their assumptions about the real world and how it parallels "Barbieland" are incorrect. That, of course, is the intent – to wrap the contradictions and complications of being a woman in a society built by and for men – in a digestible, Technicolor comedy and yet, even as Barbie gives more time and thought to its male lead than a movie about a man having an existential crisis would give to his wife or partner there are those who interpret this as a threat rather than as the extremely creative, well-drawn, and incredibly funny case for some semblance of equality and validity that it is. 

While watching the film I wrote down “In a world of Ken’s, be an Allan.” Cera’s Allan doesn’t get much screentime and works more in the capacity I expected Ken to in the film at large, but what Allan and his singular presence do illustrate is what both Barbie and Ken are trying to investigate and discover which is how to be one’s self apart from pre-ordained expectations. Allan isn’t looking to impress a Barbie every day, he couldn’t be bothered by what “job” he has that might otherwise lend him a credibility or status while also having the confidence to easily leave the only place he’s ever known as well as the strength to beat up a couple of construction workers when the situation calls for it. Cera delivers one of the biggest laugh lines of the film for me simply because of my points of reference, but he also serves as a perfect conduit for this kind of neutral, well-balanced cynic who is still affable in the company of others. Sure, the fact he’s unique in that he’s the only one of his kind is a little on-the-nose in terms of what Gerwig and Baumbach as well as their main characters are chasing thematically, but Allan is used in such a specific way that the point he illustrates only emboldens the larger ideas being conveyed through the plight of the main characters. 

Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ryan Gosling, and Ncuti Gatwa are just Kens in a Barbie world.
Photo by Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture - © 2023 - Warner Bros

That was probably too much about a small, supporting character in a movie led by Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling so I should clarify that both Robbie and Gosling aren’t playing around here despite literally playing dolls. Both actors are fully invested not only in the physicality required to bring Gerwig’s ideas to life, but also in the sincerity of the journey they each go on. Gosling is getting the buzz and will inevitably be the number one thing people are talking about as they leave the theater and deservedly so. The man absolutely kills every funny line he gets and then straight-up murders his big musical number, but he does get the bigger, funnier, showier role and thus the reason it is being talked about most. No hate. I’m all in on Gosling getting a Best Supporting Actor nomination if not a win and can only hope the “I am Kenough” hoodie he sports at the end of the movie is available for purchase soon because I want one, but Robbie (who has been captivating since showing up ten years ago in About Time) does the heaviest lifting here. Not only is Robbie embodying this nearly sixty-year-old ideal of stereotypical female perfection, but she is selling the comedy of "Barbieland" as well as turning around a couple of scenes later and making the audience feel genuinely upset by how the first tween (Ariana Greenblatt) she encounters in the real world interprets the whole of her being. Robbie gives a performance that not only rings true in both of these facets but must also solidify what everyone else in the cast is doing as well as support what everyone else behind the scenes has built. It is quite the ask, but Robbie makes it feel effortless. Though I doubt Robbie will receive the recognition she should for it, her performance opposite Rhea Perlman in the film’s closing moments almost guarantees Perlman’s performance will. 

America Ferrera, Kate McKinnon, and Will Ferrell are also of note in this world and while McKinnon and Ferrell are each given their moments to deliver their own brand of off-kilter it is Ferrera who has the show-stopping moment in which she delivers the thesis, the culmination, the coup de grâce to the patriarchy if you will; the treatise of the movie’s exploration on the feminist investigation. It’s a moment one can see coming from a mile away and yet Ferrera’s delivery in this one moment swiftly swings from rage to impassioned to sentimental and back as she inspires the recently brainwashed Barbies to play on the egos and petty jealousies of the Kens in order to take back their rightful place as the rulers of "Barbieland". While anything but subtle and despite Ferrera’s character and arc otherwise feeling like more of a function of the plot to this point it is this turn that integrates her character, Gloria, into the fun of the film as Sasha (Greenblatt), her daughter, looks on proudly and finally drops her angsty façade to join her mom for some rebellious, liberating fun that also sends a message. 

Margot Robbie's "Stereotypical Barbie" leaves Barbieland for the Real World on her journey of self-discovery.
Photo by Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture - © 2023 - Warner Bros

I maybe admire Barbie more so than I actually love it, but I do feel a deep adoration for what Gerwig and all involved have accomplished here. Not only for the aforementioned musical cues, production and costume design, as well as Rodrigo Prieto’s candy-coated cinematography, but for the small directorial flairs included such as the matching of the offices down to the light fixtures and of extras walking through the background when going to a split screen or – as someone who is admittedly logic-driven – trusting her audience with the lack of logic or explanation for how the connection between "Barbieland" and the real world and dolls and their owners actually works. There is no science to the way these things are connected and one either has to accept that and stick with the idea that this is a fantasy land and everything might not make sense in the same way it does in the real world or just not, but even to that extent Gerwig and Baumbach are sure to include a line of dialogue late in the film that is spoken by one of the Kens in the denouement of battle about how we “make things up just to deal with how uncomfortable it is” and while not explicitly referring to the plot machinations of the movie one gets the sense this is one part commentary, one part suggestion. 

The degrees to which this got weirder than believed would be permitted is truly rewarding though, as the broadness to which the existential crisis is played make it work as a legitimate conflict while the smaller moments between characters are authentic to the point the film delivers a real weight for viewers to carry with them once the film is over. It is the balance of that simplicity or the more obvious targets at which a Barbie movie would be obligated to take aim and the elegance with which Gerwig handles these ridiculous scenarios that not only emphasizes the immediate vitality the film has injected into the culture, but more that the film itself is a statement for how Gerwig didn’t allow herself to be put in a box that will help this product, this art, last far longer than any of us.

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