Movies based around toys are not always about the toys themselves. The Lego Movie was really about finding a place to belong and accepting yourself for who you are. And Battleship… well, let’s not talk about that one ever again. Similarly, Barbie is not really about Barbie. The film flirts with awareness about the iconic doll’s cultural shortcomings and negative impact on society, but never really delves into any of the messy bits. Instead it takes a wafer-thin look at a few issues in our world, points them out, and then moves on. Barbie is entertaining, with some truly incredible art direction, but its commentary and flashy looks are superficial.
The general premise of the film is that there is a Barbieland and our real world, and the two only meet when there is a problem that needs fixing. Aside from that, Barbie (Margot Robbie) lives in her dream house, err, Dreamhouse with neighboring Barbies each living in their own Dreamhouses too. Everything is perfect for Barbie and the Barbies, and no one wants any of that to change. Though Ken (Ryan Gosling) and the other Kens would like a little more attention than they receive, that seems to be the only major gripe.
The actual mechanics of the plot are secondary, as they only function to get Barbie and Ken into our real world and then back to theirs. While there is no real risk of Barbie having any real impact on our world (despite parent company Mattel’s best marketing efforts), there is a big risk for Barbieland getting corrupted by knowledge these two explorers may bring back.
To no surprise, the major clash of the worlds comes from the patriarchy butting heads with Barbieland’s inherent feminism. That mythical plastic land is so steeped in girl power it does not need to have the word “feminism” or celebrate women’s value in society. This leaves all those Barbies at home defenseless when the Kens start to take control.
Barbie is sure to catch some audience backlash for its “wokeness,” but when it gets down to it the film’s view of women’s struggles and “men’s rights” is somehow both shallow and nuanced. It acknowledges that having either all men in charge or all women in charge is not the solution to either world’s problems. The film also makes a point to show the all-male executive team at Mattel as clownish, but with a few of their hearts in the right place.
It is admirable for the film, and co-writer/director Greta Gerwig, to deal with a refinement in attitude toward the ongoing war of the sexes, but it ultimately fails to make any real argument because it never scratches any further below the surface. Sure, Ken and Barbie are stand-ins for men and women as monoliths, but there is little exploration of the real world problems Barbieland is aping. The mere idea of actual digestion of the complicated nature of these very real problems is nowhere to be seen, and it makes the whole exercise in gender politics feel a bit hollow and performative. Additionally, there is only one passing mention of Barbie’s impossible body type, which is dropped into the script and stepped over just as quickly as it came. Accusing a Barbie movie of being shallow might seem a little silly, but to quote my sister when she and I fought over Barbies as children, “she started it.”
All of these societal arguments, or lack thereof, can be pushed aside 114 minute running time to enjoy the visual marvel that is Barbie. Robbie is beyond pitch-perfect here to the degree that it would be difficult to picture anyone else in this role, even as she is surrounded by other Barbies. The costuming in the film is accurate to the doll’s history to the point of causing flashbacks to specific smells when gowns and fitted heels fly by on screen, but the true star of the film is the set design.
The Dreamhouses are perfectly impractical, as are the slightly too small cars and brightly colored landscapes. So many people know what to expect with Barbie’s house, but to visually invent a language of plastic molded beach sand and a totally immersive cul de sac is a feat. It all works together so well, and truly sets the scene for a naive world of dance parties and genital-free flirting.
While the script might have bitten off more than it had any intention of chewing, Barbie is still good fun. It is easy to watch and rewards the audience for paying attention to the art direction, so long as they don’t look too closely at the film’s hollow thesis.