Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is a colourful, hilarious and heartfelt movie with excellent performances from Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling.
Any film that begins by paying homage to a classic piece of cinema and with the voice of the fantastic Dame Helen Mirren is a good thing. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, then, starts out on very much the right foot – a dainty, plastic foot that’s constantly on tip-toes.
That foot belongs to Margot Robbie’s titular Barbie, one of many who live in the pastel pink and perfect Barbieland. As Mirren provides narration with a generous dose of dry wit, she explains that Barbies have made womanhood easier for generations of women, and somehow they really exist in a separate fantasy world of their own.
Everything about this Barbieland is just wonderful. From the start Gerwig leans into the artifice and absurdity of it all. Drink cups are empty, the sea is made of unmoving plastic, Barbie’s mirror contains no glass, and smartly written original songs highlight these oddities in a way that’s extremely amusing. There’s been little attempt to make Barbieland seem in any way real; it’s clearly a life sized version of the worlds children create for their Barbies at home.
Many a debate over Barbie has been as to whether she’s at all feminist. On one hand, the doll exists in physically impossible proportions, encouraging inaccurate expectations of perfection in young girls. On the other, she’s the doll that can be anything, and has encouraged many young women to become things that might have at one time seemed improbable. Out of this debate Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, who wrote the script together, weave a smart, astute, and hilariously funny story about feminism, the difficulties and expectations tied to existing as a woman, and the patriarchy.
It’s a film where you’ll benefit from going in blind, so I won’t give too much away. However, I will say that Barbie’s adventure takes her to the real world, where she learns that real women are unexpectedly complex and society is far from perfect.
Gerwig interrogates these societal power structures in a way that’s refreshingly witty and sometimes downright hilarious. Adding to the humour of the film are Robbie and Ryan Gosling. Gosling makes for the perfect Ken, and his comic timing is perfection. He benefits from the witty script, but delivers his lines beautifully and has the most incredible range when it comes to facial expressions. There’s some really over-the-top physical acting going on here, and it’s exactly what Gerwig’s film needs. Especially as a counterpoint to Robbie’s completely endearing earnestness.
In amongst this humour, though, is a genuinely moving story about being held to, and held down by, impossible standards, making society fair and equal for everyone, and recognising your worth. Part of that story is the human Gloria (America Ferrera) and her daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), who Barbie meets along the way.
They’re people with strong ties to Barbie and varying opinions on her, and their relationship is clearly strained as Sasha reaches a difficult age. Their character development, especially the young Sasha’s, isn’t given quite the attention it could be, though Ferrera gets an incredible monologue that really stands out.
She’s not the only one who gets to shine. The various Barbies and Kens in Barbieland require an extensive ensemble cast to portray them, and there are many great performances. Kate McKinnon and Issa Rae are excellent as Weird and President Barbie, respectively, and Michael Cera also memorable as the much-less-memorable Allan.
For a film about a plastic doll, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie has a lot of heart and a lot of important things to say. Not only that, but it’s incredibly joyful, and left me grinning all the way through.
Barbie is in cinemas on 21st July.
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