Through no fault of its own, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie became much more than itself when it hit theaters this summer. Not only is it the highest-grossing movie of 2023 worldwide, but it also inspired one of the most fascinating cultural crazes of the year (second only to the Taylor Swift Eras Tour). When you think about the Barbie movie, you probably don’t think about the plot or the movie itself. You think about the Barbie memes that flooded your Instagram search page all summer. You think about the TikTok trends inspired by the movie. You think about the outfits that you and your squad wore when you went to see it. You think about all the Barbenheimer jokes. In the age of WiFi and streaming, it’s not often that a theatrical release becomes a cultural phenomenon. Through a combination of ingenious marketing, impeccable timing, and the TikTok algorithm, Barbie became a cultural moment that is separate from the movie itself. Now that Barbie is available for viewers to enjoy at home (on digital, Blu-ray, DVD, and 4K UHD), it’s time to revisit it as a standalone movie outside of its cultural moment. When you watch Barbie on a home TV or an iPad rather than on a giant theater screen with your best pals, does it live up to the hype? When we evaluate Barbie the movie and not Barbie the meme, what do we get?
Granted, you can’t evaluate anything without considering some cultural context. But it’s a useful exercise to step back and look at Barbie as a movie, not just a craze. One symptom of the Barbie craze was that it became a very divisive movie. You either had to love it or hate it. Say the wrong thing about Barbie, and you might end up starting an unwanted political conversation. However, with a rich and complex movie like Barbie, it’s not useful to pick sides just for the sake of picking sides. Barbie has enough good attributes to make it a knockout standalone movie, but it also has flaws. We can acknowledge those flaws without hating on the entire movie. It’s complex enough for viewers to love some aspects and question others, and that’s what makes it interesting.
Much like the title character herself, Barbie is everything. It’s comedic, satirical, musical, boisterous, colorful, playful, dramatic, referential, explanatory, educational, and emotional. Barbie is trying to do and be a lot, and it really only fits into its own category (Barbie can’t be put in a box. The men at Mattel try and fail). The movie was directed by the talented and Oscar-nominated Greta Gerwig (director of Little Women and Lady Bird), who wrote the screenplay with Oscar-nominated Noah Baumbach (director of White Noise and Marriage Story). If you’re not familiar with the plot, it goes something like this: Barbie (Margot Robbie, also called Stereotypical Barbie), lives a perfect life in Barbie Land with all the other Barbies. Her counterpart, Ken (Ryan Gosling) is there, too. But his life is far from perfect. In the words of the narrator (voiced by Helen Mirren), “Barbie has a great day every day, but Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.” Suddenly, strange things start happening and disrupting Barbie’s perfect routine. Her feet go flat, her showers turn cold, her milk expires, and she suddenly starts having “irrepressible thoughts of death.” In order to get her life back, Barbie has to journey out of Barbie Land and into the real world.
So, let’s take a look at what works. First, there’s the incredible art direction. Gerwig had an elaborate vision for Barbie, and the creative team went above and beyond to make it happen. The sets, costumes, hairstyles, practical effects, and props are delightfully imaginative. Barbie Land has all the playsets, accessories, and doll clothing you could’ve ever wanted as a kid. The fine details of each prop and set piece are truly astonishing. Barbie Land really is a life-sized doll world, complete with fake water in Barbie’s pool and sticker foods to make her fridge look full. Plus, the movie is full of countless references to the history of Barbie and Mattel. (If you want to know more about the art direction, check out the “Welcome to Barbie Land” featurette on the Blu-ray and 4K UHD disc.) Gerwig also incorporates Barbie nostalgia by lovingly mimicking the way that kids actually play with dolls. It’s almost like a child is telling the story. When Ken gets injured during a surfing accident, he heals in less time than it takes for the doctor to explain his injury to him. When Barbie brakes too hard while driving the dream car, it does a perfect summersault through the air and lands upright (as if a child was moving it through the air to simulate a crash). Gerwig’s version of Barbie Land celebrates the charm and innocence of a child’s imagination in a delightful way. She makes us remember how fun it was to create worlds and make things up when we were kids.
Gerwig recruited an all-star cast to bring her charming and nostalgic world to life. Margot Robbie certainly looks like a stereotypical Barbie (as the narrator points out), but she also gives new life to the iconic doll by endowing her with a full range of human emotions. It’s fun to watch Robbie embrace the classic Barbie personality with a gigantic smile and over-the-top emotions, but the lead actress is at her best when she subtly draws attention to Barbie’s quieter emotions. Gosling, on the other hand, is overdramatic throughout the entire movie. But he’s overdramatic in the best way. Despite the movie’s tagline, “She’s everything. He’s just Ken,” Ken is a big part of the reason why Barbie works so well. And Gosling is a big part of the reason why Ken works so well. Gosling brings the energy of a hyperactive, expressive, and emotional 5-year-old who wants nothing more than his mother’s undivided attention. Using a heaping spoonful of boyish charm, Gosling perfectly embodies the spirit of an attention-seeking and competitive kid. And it’s clear that he had tons of fun doing it. In fact, there’s palpable joy among the entire cast. Robbie and Gosling are joined in Barbie Land by Issa Rae (president Barbie), Kate McKinnon (weird Barbie), Alexandra Shipp (novelist Barbie), Emma Mackey (physicist Barbie), Hari Nef (doctor Barbie), and Sharon Rooney (lawyer Barbie), along with Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, and Ncuti Gatwa (other Kens). Oh, and there’s also Michael Cera as Allen, Ken’s friend. In the real world, Barbie meets the president of Mattel, portrayed by Will Farrell, who brings his typical brand of humor to the film. She also meets a woman named Gloria (America Ferrera) and her daughter, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt). With such a diverse group of talented and enthusiastic professionals, you can only imagine how much fun they all had on set. Their joy and excitement shine through in every second of Barbie.
Now, for what doesn’t work. To be blunt, some of the dialogue in Barbie is just downright cringe. For example, when Barbie goes to the real world, she verbalizes her first experience with patriarchy (being cat-called) with an awkward play-by-play about her thoughts and feelings. It’s over-explanatory, oversimplified, and dry. It’s textbook feminism that’s poorly disguised as satire. Of course, there are dozens of ways that you could defend this type of dialogue. You could say that Gerwig is trying to replicate the experience of learning about the patriarchy for the first time. However, this doesn’t account for the nuances of how women experience patriarchy in the real world. You don’t just get catcalled once and automatically download an essay about the male gaze into your brain. You could also say that the cringe dialogue demonstrates that textbook feminism is oversimplified and doesn’t make sense in the real world. But if that’s the message, it’s lost in translation. In the example above, we’re supposed to empathize with Barbie, but it’s hard to take her feelings seriously when she’s expressing them in a satirical way and making fun of herself. Oversimplified feminism is a wonderful tool for satire, but satire is not an excuse to use cringe dialogue. If Barbie is supposed to be critiquing trite feminist rhetoric, it certainly doesn’t feel like it.
So, in terms of style and general fun, Barbie lives up to the hype. But it’s not perfect. Unless it has a second life with midnight screenings involving costumes and semi-scripted audience participation (like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)), Barbie as a movie will never be quite what it was during the cultural moment when it was released. Still, Barbie is the kind of movie you’ll want to watch multiple times. The Blu-ray and 4K UHD discs include six behind-the-scenes featurettes that explore Gerwig’s vision for the movie and the team’s creative process. These special features only just scratch the surface, and they don’t offer much behind-the-scenes footage that you can’t find on TikTok or YouTube (what ever happened to gag reels and documentary-length special features?). For a movie that inspired such a huge cultural moment, the features on the home release are pretty uninspiring. However, if you’re a DVD collector, the stunning pink cover of the 4K UHD version will look great on your shelf.
Barbie Special Features:
- Welcome to Barbie Land – featurette
- Becoming Barbie – featurette
- Playing Dress-Up – featurette
- Musical Make-Believe – featurette
- All-Star Barbie Party – featurette
- It’s A Weird World – featurette
Available on digital September 12th, 2023.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD October 17th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Warner Bros. Pictures Barbie website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.