3.5 STARS / 5 (Betwixt Good et Excellent)







I am neither white nor blond nor a doll-digger nor a junior nor do I sport a peach cleft, so I figured I’d be perfectly positioned to dispassionately check out what Barbie has to offer. Kids – you may scram from the theatre right now and bury your faces in a trio of pink ice cream cones – this chick flick is aimed squarely at smart teenagers and adults to wanly chuckle over and gnaw at pink-ribboned designer bones while not quite having the juicy meat to sink into. My Thursday night first week show had real pink-donned barbie dolls queuing up to see the flick which moved me in a Nabokovian sense, and the crowd overall was the high school-going-on-to-college age, including two blokes in fleecy pink jackets and bared coccygeal skin.

Never underestimate the power of an image to confetti-ignite a $140 million glamorous doll extravaganza. Martin Scorsese’s fever-dream ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ (2013) features a scene of Barbie Doll pastel beauty embodied by a suitably fashioned Margot Robbie magically pretty in a soft pink dress with golden-blond hair cascading over, doing things Barbie does when no one is looking. 10 years on, that apparition gets to spread out her full pic.

Director and Co-Writer Greta Gerwig conjures a bright-‘n’-pinky world of giant toy-like sets blown up to real town-‘n’-house dimensions in which Barbie presides like a robotic fairy queen. This Mattel fairytale, however, is powered not by conventional story-telling or innovative set-pieces but by the theme of letting a woman be a regular human being without objectifying her, and Barbie’s evolution from brainless designer doll to an everyday girl with menses and existential angst.

 It is a ballsy pitch for a big budget blockbuster which Gerwig pulls off with the social and political hook, sprinkled no doubt with heaps of grinning cultural asides, but she misses out on the broader fun factor. I appreciated the riffs and satire but missed the laugh-out-loud scenes. Pairing the feminist concept with enough of simple charm would have been a truly dazzling feat that is not on full display here. Robbie has stated that the plan is to “subvert expectations and give audiences the thing you didn't know you wanted". That is perfectly fine but the core concept here is a play doll that children over ten years of age rarely bother with, so mostly cutting out the kiddie interest angle is not the best of ideas. ‘Ratatouille’s themes and objectives may not be perfectly analogous to that of ‘Barbie’, but that former film is a genius, magnificent example of cinema that equally satisfies both adult and child.  

Barbie’s story-book oh-so-cute existence is ruptured when her mortal thoughts and existential anxieties (it’s a wonder there’s no cameo by Ingmar Bergman) fall on deaf ears of her doll coevals and she is advised by an outcast to travel to the world of real humans, to find the girl who is playing with her. Ken (a six-pack sculpted Ryan Gosling) cannot imagine a world without Barbie and her approval, so he escapes in her car to the new world, where he contracts the covid of patriarchy.

Barbie meanwhile is devastated when she finds her ‘owner’ girl, a teenager who has long given up stupid dolls, neatly summing up this inverted legend’s grievance when she angrily accuses Barbie of perpetuating ‘sexualized capitalism’! Our crucified heroine finds succour in the girl’s mother who is less militant and more understanding of the mores this whole lot is mired in.    

The opening sequence – an inspired riff on ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ – is emblematic of the whole movie’s predicament – good but with issues. Probably a fraction of the audiences will get that nod to the iconic 1968 classic, while the bashing of the baby dolls mirrors the disturbing ‘shaken baby syndrome’ infant abuse that a sensible artist like Gerwig would surely have the sense to recognize and avoid. 

Succeeding scenes are significantly better – Barbie painting the town red, and the way her fabled routine slowly takes a toss. Acutely conscious of not featuring only white young folks, two supporting actresses break the racial mould, while women across the age and race group occur both in the main narrative and imagined montages. It is a dialogue-rich movie and America Ferrera gets to top off her performance with a juicy monologue uttered in Barbie-land about how strait-jacketed the expectations are for her lot. A white-haired elderly lady – Ruth Handler – appears as the real-life creator of Barbie, though to put matters in perspective, Handler was forty-three when Barbie’s 1959 debut became a vaulting success within the year.  

“I’m a Barbie girl, in the Barbie Land” by Aqua in 1997 became a global smash-hit and even after Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’, one can be sure that that piece of unlicensed Barbie ‘art’ from ’97 will rule the roost, people instantly remembering it. Gerwig will likely scoff at the comparison, probably averring that her expectation-bending film is different from the song’s smutty joy-ride. To that I’d just say one thing – entertainment is entertainment and I just didn’t enjoy the 2023 version as much as I thought I would. That comes from an art film-loving dude, and one could see similarly underwhelmed responses from the Barbie brigade in the theatre as the closing credits rolled.  

Margot Robbie’s special screen presence is the biggest thespian asset of ‘Barbie’, never mind the fact that Robbie doesn’t go to special lengths to make us really feel for Barbie. I will note one politically incorrect un-Gerwig observation here - Robbie without make-up is still good (as the movie breaks the fourth wall to comment) and with make-up and do-up, she has that dazzling persona which is up there with all-time Hollywood legends like Audrey Hepburn. Ryan Gosling’s hardest work reflects in his six-pack, otherwise this brooding actor delivers a wooden act without the groovy kink that would have taken his role a notch higher. There are other decent acts of course but none stand out.   

Some years ago before my own feminism and wokeness had yet to reach their acme, I was at a pal’s place where a visiting teenage girl with ripped jeans was lamenting how her family expected her to keep her room clean, while her bro could be allowed to keep his as a pigsty. I tried to tell her why she as a superior specimen had more rarefied obligations, while that kind soul, to avoid having a go at me, gave an excuse and exited the scene. I think that young lady would have enjoyed this ‘Barbie’ much more.  




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