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Mattel-Inspired Masterpiece or Hot Pink Mess - my review on the movie “Barbie”

(Warning: spoilers)

Before you ask “where have you been these last 3 months?” I can honestly say that it has taken me every ounce of strength to convince me to go see “Barbie”.

This polarising concept of a movie about a much beloved doll has got so many tongues wagging - and most of it has been good! From the clever marketing, to the hyper feminine rhetoric this movie promotes, not to mention household names such as Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, you have to credit Director, Greta Gerwig for taking a huge gamble, despite this being her third feature film.

Throughout my childhood, I have probably owned 1 or 2 Barbies and one point, I got the barbie scooter and even asked my mum for the coveted camper van. I remember the “Barbie and the Rockers” edition where I watched a cartoon version of Barbie and her band performing in space, which goes to show that “Barbie can be anything” as well as a doctor, vet or president. Fast forward to my teens and early 20s: I had developed a disdain for the cultural phenomenon as she represented everything I was not: blonde, blue eyed and thin that only exacerbated my sense of self-loathing, and this was before social media came on the scene! As a teenager, I remember singing aloud to the Aqua song “Barbie Girl” while doing the signature doll moves to “I’m a Barbie girl! In a Barbie world. Wrapped in plastic. It’s fantastic!”

Today, I am woman in my (ahem) early 40s who is struggling with the juggle of motherhood, career, being a wife and maintaining my overall wellbeing, and for Hollywood to produce such an ambitious undertaking in the age of woke, you can’t help but be a bit cynical, so please forgive me for not rushing to get my movie ticket.

I have watched this film with a pink fine tooth comb, and I can honestly say that despite my bias towards the doll, there were some elements that I found quite clever.

Let me enlighten you if you are not familiar with the plot (which is impossible as you are probably all over the “Barbieheimer” gravy train.)

Barbie (Robbie) lives in “Barbieland” as “Stereotypical Barbie” with an assortment of other Barbies (ie: President Barbie, Doctor Barbie, Pilot Barbie, etc) in her iconic dream house, along with the “Kens” whose only real purpose is to be an extension of Barbie (introducing Gosling.) Then out of the blue, Barbie notices some things going wrong in her perfect pink world (ie: walking on flat feet, no longer gliding on thin air and getting cellulite, God forbid!) and then finds out, thanks to the ostracised “Weird Barbie” (played perfectly by comedian, Kate McKinnon) that there’s been a tear in the Barbie continuum, and needs to venture into the “Real world” (as in our world) to make things right. As Barbie ventures into the real world with Gosling/Ken in tow, both discover the huge contrast in gender idealogies that dominate both worlds, which leads to both characters experiencing an existential crisis - so Gerwig!

At the same time, Mattel head, Mother (Will Farrell) is having his own crisis where he is worried that once “Stereotypical Barbie” becomes exposed to the inconsistencies of the real world, then their brand will crumble, while his secretary and stressed out mum (aka the average woman), Gloria (America Ferrera) realises there’s more in common with her and Barbie than she realises.

The script and overall concept is well written, thanks for Gerwig and her movie collaborator/real life partner, Noah Baumbach (who also wrote and directed “Marriage story” which I thoroughly recommend). You can also tell this is a Gerwig/Baumbach movie for its staged, drawn out, intellectualised monologues (think Laura Dern’s speech on gender roles in “Marriage story” and Florence Pugh and her view on where a women stands in a traditional marriage in “Little Women”) which isn’t a bad thing, but if you want to be known for trying different things, better try a new angle.

The art direction is very imaginative where they spent a pithy $145 million (don’t worry, they got the money back!) on plastic, colourful dreamhouses and sets recreating “Barbieworld”. The travelling montage where they used obviously fake mechanical sets that resembled a high school production was also an interesting touch.

Robbie delivers a refreshing take on the titular character while also given the daunting task of showing two sides to the doll. The stereotypical side that we have all come to know, as well as a vulnerable, humanistic portrayal of a young woman who is trapped in her own persona while not entirely sure who she really is, and at one point, we even feel a twinge of sympathy as she questions her life’s purpose now that the rose coloured glasses have been ripped her her immaculate face. Hell, she’s even one of the few who cries pretty!

However, the obvious stand out performer would have go to Gosling as the conflicted Ken as he struggles to explore his manhood, while also showing his unrequited affections towards Barbie. This movie also shows off his “Triple Threat” skills as he sings his signature tune “I’m just Ken” complete with Beyonce inspired dance moves. My only gripe would be the overuse of “Ken” puns, but you would probably blame the scriptwriters for that.

Based on other people’s criticisms/praising of the film being “anti-patriarchy” I honestly didn’t think it was that overemphasised. In fact, I quite liked the subtleties the film had made in exploring gender roles and how both worlds approached them (or didn’t approach them) echoing the sentiment that we still have a long way to go in terms of equality.

What I didn’t like about the film was its length (nearly 2 hours?) There was probably so much that didn’t need to be said and whether the narration (voiced by movie legend and modern feminist icon, Helen Mirren) was necessary, I don’t know, but I can imagine the droves of mums taking their daughters to see this film, only to have them fidgeting in their seats while saying “can we go now?”

Which brings me to the next issue: how it is marketed for all ages. In an interview with Gerwig, she was asked what sort of audience this movie was targeted towards, and she replied “It’s a movie for everyone.” I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t take my 4 year old daughter to see this movie, even though she has a few Barbie Disney Princess dolls and every item she wears is pink. Children would not understand the gender themes and the exaggerated displays of toxic masculinity and submissive females for comedic effect could be easily mistaken as normal behaviour for some.

There were also times where I questioned the movie’s intention toward the franchise; whether to portray it as a parody or a pastiche. Gerwig also stated in an earlier interview that growing up, she wasn’t encouraged to have a Barbie and that her mum often criticised what the doll represented as a feminist icon, but Gerwig also said that there was something in the concept that she felt she could draw out, but whether that revelation was clear remains to be seen. From the superficial nature of the Barbies and promotion of accessories and clothes, to the character arc of Barbie seeing herself as more than a stereotype, there were moments where I saw Gerwig’s vision as a hot pink mess than a Mattel-inspired masterpiece.

Obviously this film has broken box office records for a reason, and I can see why. If the Oscars had a category for best marketing, this movie would have won it in spades, apart from luring young girls to watch it which makes me question the production’s overall intent. In terms of substance, behind the pink and pomp, “Barbie” does a decent job in exploring the patriarchy and what a feminist utopia would look like if we (women) had our way. But with perhaps a few script rewrites, maybe this film would have more to pull off then a well-marketed brand with a pretty pink bow on it.


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