Packed with enough jokes and visual inventiveness to get around the corporate feel, this follow-up to Little Women is a vibrant treat
How do you make a movie about a toy feel like a real piece of cinema instead of just a two-hour commercial? Even with The Lego Movie providing a blueprint back in 2014 (basically to just pack the thing with jokes), it’s a question that Barbie no doubt faced an uphill struggle to answer. Thankfully, and somewhat predictably given her previous two barnstorming films, Greta Gerwig has proven more than up to the task, bringing Barbie to life in a story that, with a few obvious corporate interventions aside, is witty, funny, ambitious, and, yes, very, very pink.
We start in Barbieland, a world built out of all the various toy Barbie playsets, where our heroine – “Stereotypical Barbie” (Margot Robbie) – lives her dream life in her Dream House, spending her days with various other Barbies, all holding high-powered positions as presidents and doctors and Nobel Prize winners, basking in feminist perfection. It’s an idealised world that Gerwig feels well-suited to, gently mocking the Barbies’ optimistic naivety while also just having a blast with the scale and style that the pastel-coloured environments allow her to play with.
Barbieland looks great, silly and plastic while also being suitably grandiose, though the visual wow factor does take a hit once Barbie departs for the Real World, where Gerwig’s style honestly feels a little muted. Plagued with thoughts of death and discovering new imperfections about herself, it turns out she’s being brought low by the negative feelings of her owner Gloria (America Ferreira) and needs to head to the human world – LA, to be precise – to fix things. And so, accompanied by her loyal friend Ken (Ryan Gosling), so begins Barbie’s grand adventure.
In our reality, Barbie and Ken learn about the patriarchy, a system the overlooked-and-resentful-about-it Ken seeks to emulate back in Barbieland, which lets Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach get the requisite shots in about How It Is To Be A Woman. While these big speeches are effective enough, they aren’t a match for similar moments in Lady Bird and Little Women, on the nose in a way that seems designed more to fit into a meme-able screenshot than say anything very new.
What is much more impactful, then, is Barbie’s sense of humour (often making the same points as the monologues but in a much punchier format). It’s one of 2023’s funniest films, especially in Gosling’s performance. Everyone in the remarkably stacked cast is great here (with the possible exception of a very superfluous-feeling Will Ferrell as the head of Mattel), from Robbie’s half-goofy, half-tragic turn in the lead to the various other Kens and Barbies, but it’s Gosling who truly shines, Ken’s inherent ridiculousness allowing him to steal the show.
He’s hysterically funny throughout, the most entertaining he’s been since The Nice Guys, especially in a couple of climactic musical numbers towards the end. It’s in these numbers that Barbie is at its very best, lifting it from simply good to a great time at the movies (showing off the sublimely kinetic direction that made Gerwig’s Little Women such a masterpiece), and I found myself wishing the whole film had fully committed to being a musical, to take full advantage of its catchy music and montage-heavy storytelling.
In recent weeks, Gerwig has made clear her ambition to be a director of Big Studio Movies and, on this evidence, she is more than qualified, balancing corporate directives with vibrancy, great jokes, and a real sense of scale and movement. Barbie might, inescapably, feel like a filmmaker “selling out,” but if we could all sell out with this sort of verve and skill, then who the hell wouldn’t?
Barbie is released in UK cinemas on 21 July.Where to watch