Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

"We all at some point in early childhood learn the difference between inanimate objects and sentient beings, but in some secret corner, doubt may linger on."

The biggest surprise in Greta Gerwig’s smart and spirited live-action blockbuster, Barbie, co-written with Noah Baumbach and starring Margot Robbie as “stereotypical” Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken in need of her 'female gaze,' is the cameo made by the multiple Oscar-winning costume designer (for Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient and George C Wolfe’s Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) and Baumbach favourite (While We're Young and White Noise), the always beautiful Ann Roth. Here, Jacqueline Durran (Oscar wins for Gerwig’s Little Women and Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightley) does the outfits.

Our Heroine With 1,001 Faces, to borrow the title of Harvard professor Maria Tatar’s latest book - which itself engages with Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces - is on a quest that leads her from Barbieland to the Real World and back, and eventually forth. Barbie (Robbie, perfectly imperfectly human) lives in her dream house and enjoys her time dancing and singing with the other Barbies and Ken (Gosling - the only actor imaginable in this role) who is not a surfer despite his surfboard, definitely not a lifeguard, and who describes his job as “beach.”

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Gerwig begins her take on the first iconic doll that wasn’t a doll-baby to be mothered with a pastiche of Kubrick’s famous 2001: A Space Odyssey bone-in-the-air sequence. Only here a gaggle of angry little girls in ochre prairie dresses - who look as though they just escaped the set of her Little Women - encounter the narrator voice of Helen Mirren and a gigantic version of the very first Barbie in her black and white swimsuit.

Dressed in the cutest pink pajamas, Barbie awakes each morning to embrace a new best day ever. Nothing bad can happen to you when you are Barbie, standing steadfast on your toes. Here in Barbieland the houses have no walls and a mid-century breeze floats over the desert and the beach. Barbies are everything from President to Supreme Court Justices, construction workers and mermaids, an airplane pilot, and a pair of astronauts. And they have girls-only parties every night to the great dismay of Ken, or rather the Kens, because there are a lot of them with that name.

Classic Hollywood musicals are also never far. The empty studios with painted skies and changing light - divine background for dance numbers in Singin’ In The Rain or An American In Paris. Or across the sea, the bright pinks and yellows that Jacques Demy so effortlessly combined with most pressing societal issues and song. One dance number features an army of Kens dressed in black, all sporting the classic Weejuns Audrey Hepburn wore in the Paris jazz cavern while dancing for Fred Astaire in Funny Face.

Fairy tales and their popular trope of someone, or something non-human being confronted with the possibility of becoming one of us show up in many spots. When Barbie’s discovery of death and tears shocks all the other Barbies and her feet flatten, a visit to Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), clearly a kinswoman to the Little Mermaid’s Sea Witch, is the only option. Of course the classic refusal of the call does not work and the choice between pale pink high-heeled pumps and brown Birkenstocks is a fake one, and on the road she is sent, like said Mermaid or Pinocchio or Dorothy’s companions on the yellow brick road who had it all in them in the first place.

In Los Angeles, where she is advised to go, Barbie and stowaway Ken arrive by the beach on rollerblades in a Santa Monica that is more distinctly of the present. After a very specific travel sequence (that includes her sports car and also a speedboat, a camper, a space rocket, and bikes through Holland in Lederhosen) Barbie has to try and find the girl responsible for her sudden discovery of mortality (the explanation of a kind of spiritual doll/human crossover is interesting, but halfway developed here).

After changing into new clothes with a Western theme, their experiences couldn’t be more different. Barbie encounters sexism in its many shapes for the first time, while Ken, used to being constantly secondary, feels empowered by this baffling concept called patriarchy. As he sashays around Century City he resembles Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy’s Manhattan, a male doll in a strange new world. No coincidence, as Barbie ends up sitting on a bench next to the incomparable Ann Roth, costume designer of Midnight Cowboy (who dressed Gerwig most outrageously in Baumbach’s White Noise.) This brief cameo is pivotal, as it captures a wisdom about beauty and self-knowledge that is really at the centre of the entire film.

Those of us who used to love playing with Barbies will recognise a familiar feeling of safety, of nostalgia about the invincibility in her presence - despite the fact that Will Ferrell as Mattel CEO jokes about Proust Barbie having been a failure that was discontinued. When the boss is alerted that two of their creations have escaped from Barbieland, he orders an all-hands-on-board search to capture Barbie and return her. America Ferrera as Gloria, an employee at Mattel, and her daughter, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), both have a number of important things to say about what it means to be female in the Real World, and their speeches are impressive. “Everybody hates women,” says Sasha, men do and also other women. And we think back at the Barbie world from earlier, where that was clearly not the case.

But meanwhile, things have changed there as Ken, who returned already with his library books on patriarchy in tow, has started a rebellion of the Kens. Gosling, decked out in a faux mink coat, boxing gloves, headband, and chain necklace, is wonderful as he is on the one hand full-force-ahead-Ken, and on the other seems to shake his head at the ridiculousness of his own performance. As Nanni Moretti once put it “I want the actor standing next to the character.” Christian Petzold’s Afire, another splendid 2023 summer movie, has Thomas Schubert do the same as Leon.

The Kens have taken over the dream houses. Horses now run on all the little TVs (a nod to the pioneer of motion pictures, Eadweard Muybridge) and the guys want to change the constitution. The Barbies have been put under a spell to make them subservient, with frozen minds and only the vaguest memory of their achievements. Having learned how women are always seen as too much or too little (or both) in the Real World, our heroine is immune to the spell, but she and her newfound friends have to act soon and find a way to break the hold, end the Kendom and save both worlds. Playing stupid, listening for hours to their music and having the Kens explain The Godfather to them may do the trick.

Then there is Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), inventor of Barbie, co-founder of Mattel, whose ghost keeps an office on the 17th floor of Mattel headquarters. She appears like a character from The Twilight Zone or Here Comes Mr. Jordan and could be a colleague of Edward Everett Horton playing an angel. She explains that “being human can be uncomfortable.” And “they make up things like patriarchy and Barbie and then they die.” Both White Noise and Barbie gestated during times of Covid. Death lurks everywhere but life is what it’s all about.

As a special treat, so often the case over the end credits in biopics, we get to meet the “real” people - here in reverse in their original doll form. There is Allan (Michael Cera as Ken’s reluctant friend), Midge (Emerald Fennell as Barbie’s pregnant friend), Baby Sitter Skipper (Erica Ford) and Growing Up Skipper (Hannah Khalique-Brown), Sugar Daddy Ken (Rob Brydon), the Barbie with the TV in her back (let’s call her Cronenberg Barbie), even Tanner the dog. Depressed Barbie, watching Colin Firth in Pride And Prejudice in a loop, is not yet on the market.

We all at some point in early childhood learn the difference between inanimate objects and sentient beings, but in some secret corner, doubt may linger on. The Toy Story franchise and a pang of empathy for abandoned memories on the street (Whit Stillman’s Steiff owlet in Metropolitan!) never quite leave us. Barbie, the movie, fully embraces this magical thinking and Margot Robbie here is no less human than, let’s say, Nicole Kidman’s “Swamp Barbie” Charlotte Bless in Lee Daniels’s The Paperboy. 'Kenough' reads Ken’s rainbow-colored fleece top, sending a sartorial message that intends to make us all relax a little about perfection.

Reviewed on: 24 Jul 2023
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Barbie suffers a crisis which leads her to question her world and her existence.
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Director: Greta Gerwig

Writer: Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach

Starring: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Kate McKinnon, America Ferrera, Ariana Greenblatt, Will Ferrell, Issa Rae, Michael Cera, Rhea Perlman, Emerald Fennell, Erica Ford, Hannah Khalique-Brown, Rob Brydon, Alexandra Shipp, Emma Mackey, Hari Nef, Sharon Rooney

Year: 2023

Runtime: 114 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US, UK


Streaming on: Amazon

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